The trial of Larry Nasser, the physician who sexually abused female gymnasts, has been deeply disturbing. It’s hard to fathom how he managed to abuse hundreds of girls for so many years. Sadly, this can happen with sexual abuse. Very often, the perpetrator is someone known to the family, someone they may even trust. Very often, victims don’t understand that what is happening to them is abuse — and very often, talking about it is hard because of shame and fear.
As a society, we need to do a better job of protecting our children. But there are also lessons that parents can teach their children that can help keep them safe. Here are some suggestions from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
1. Teach children the names of their body parts. It can feel awkward, as we sometimes think of words like “penis” or “vagina” as words that shouldn’t be used in regular conversation — and words we don’t want our preschoolers saying to other children at the playground. But by teaching them the actual names of all of their body parts, including their genitals, we do two important things: we give them the proper words to use to tell us should something happen, and we let children know that you are allowed to talk about all of your body parts, including your genitals.
2. Make sure children know that not only are genitals “private,” but that nobody should touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. Another way of thinking of this is as “good touches” and “bad touches.” Any touch anywhere that is unwelcome, or feels inappropriate for the situation, is something that children should tell their parents about. This is important because often sexual abuse can begin in insidious ways, with perpetrators showing affection that isn’t sexual — extra hugs, touching an arm or a leg, a kiss.
This does not mean that every touch on the arm from a grownup is bad. The vast majority are perfectly fine. But it’s important to help children listen to their instincts and to teach them to let parents know about any touches. Parents, too, need to listen when a child tells them about a touch that made them uncomfortable. Never brush it off. Always take it seriously, ask questions, and understand what it was that made it uncomfortable.
3. Teach children that it’s not okay for a grownup to ask them to keep a secret. Okay, maybe they shouldn’t tell Mommy what Daddy has planned for her birthday. But in general, it’s not a good idea, and as with touches, secrets can start as small and seemingly innocent.
4. Create an environment where it’s okay to talk about sex. Sometimes what keeps a child from saying anything is that it feels awkward and shameful. Teaching the appropriate names for body parts is a start, but as children grow, keep up the conversation. Talk about body changes, body image, sexuality, and healthy relationships. When there are sexual images or messages in the media, instead of ignoring them, use them as conversation starters. And when there are events in the news such as the Nasser case, use them as an opportunity to reiterate messages around good/bad touches and secrets. Let children know that these are topics that you are happy to discuss.
In general, talking about sex is hard for parents. We want our children to stay innocent. But by allowing and encouraging conversations, not only do we set our children on a path toward healthier relationships, but we also help keep them safe.
Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NIV
The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing. Zephaniah 3:17 NIV
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Philippians 4:4 NIV
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Romans 12:12 NIV
When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy. Psalm 94:19 NIV
The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad. Psalm 118:24 NIV
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. Habakkuk 3:17-18 NIV
You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. Psalm 16:11 NIV
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:8-9 NIV
I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. Isaiah 61:10 NIV
Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. John 16:24 NIV
Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 2 Corinthians 9:7 NIV
A person finds joy in giving an apt reply— and how good is a timely word! Proverbs 15:23 NIV
That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10 NIV
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Romans 12:15 NIV
You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance. Psalm 32:7 NIV
So that I may come to you with joy, by God’s will, and in your company be refreshed. Romans 15:32 NIV
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