How can we keep our children safe? What do we tell them?
The familiar lesson has been “Stranger Danger,” a catchy rhyme that’s been around a while, but its only one lesson to teach.
Children do need to be wary of strangers, but we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that a perpetrator can be anyone, even a trusted adult – a relative, a teacher, a pastor, a neighbor – anyone. Some studies estimate that only 5 to 10 percent of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are strangers.
Headlines screamed about the recent conviction and 106-year sentence of former teacher Matthew Rausenberg. “Mr. R” was the adored teacher for hundreds of students; he was respected by peers and trusted by parents and community members. When Mr. R was indicted, no one wanted to believe it.
He was not a dark figure lurking behind a bush, or the driver of a suspicious van. He didn’t ask children to help him find a lost puppy or offer them candy to get in his car. He didn’t “look like” or “act like” a pedophile.
Mr. R groomed students, parents, coworkers and community members – and he was very good at it. When someone is so good at being perceived as good, no one wants to believe they’re not. He normalized his behavior by committing acts in the classroom, in front of students, on an almost daily basis. The children did not want to get their favorite teacher in trouble by telling people what was happening. This type of situation plays out regularly – and not just in schools.
The big question is: How can we keep our children safe?
We teach our children to respect and to listen to adults, and that’s good. However, we must also teach them that it’s OK to say “no” to an adult – even a teacher or neighbor or relative. This is key.
Talk to your children. Teach them about safe secrets and unsafe secrets. Surprise parties, for example, are safe secrets. Any kind of uncomfortable touch, breaking family rules, presents, special favors, or anything that bothers the child are unsafe secrets. Let children know that an adult should never ask them to keep a secret – especially from a parent. Make sure your child is aware that he/she can talk to you about any secrets – and you will not get mad or be upset with them.
Teach children about safe touch and reinforce that children’s bodies belong to them. Let the child know that adults should never touch them inappropriately, and define what that means. We tell children about their “privates” but pedophiles rarely start by touching a child’s private area. They get the child used to “innocent” touch and gravitate toward “private areas.”
Give children concrete ways to deal with uncomfortable situations. One way is the “Personal Safety Saying.” Teach the following:
• Say “no!” It does not matter who the person is. Tell them to stop. Practice saying “no!” together.
• Get away as quickly as possible. Go to a safe place where there is a trusted adult.
• Tell someone – a parent or another trusted adult. Keep telling until someone helps. Brainstorm trusted adults they could talk to at different places: home, school, church, etc.
• Don’t be afraid to confront someone if your child says a person touched him or her. Yes, it may be innocent – but it may not be. If it was innocent, really no harm done. If not, you may avert future conduct.
It’s not a pretty subject, but it’s reality, and children need our help to know they have permission to say “no” to an adult, permission to listen to their instincts. Most importantly, children need to know that we will be there to help them when they need it. Children need to know they can talk to us about anything, and we will listen without getting angry.
This conversation will be different for different families. I encourage everyone to check out the following websites to find what will work for your family:
Carol O’Brien is the Delaware County prosecutor.