I can clearly remember humping the banister by the stairs of the house I grew up in. Come to think of it, as a kid I also had an occasional romantic relationship with an area of sunlit carpeting near our bay window. It was warm, and soft, and never said no. What a strange thing to think about now…. There was no one to explain any of the quasi-sexual urges and changes that seemed to be overflowing naturally out of me, and I had to kind of navigate that stuff on my own: Waiting a few extra minutes before getting out of bed on some mornings, finding the magazines under my dad’s bed, exploring the way those images made me feel, processing the shame of being caught…. It’s a lot for a kid to work through on his own. As a kid, you think you’re the only one.
I wish I could talk to that little, pre-adolescent version of myself. I’d tell him that it’s natural. And he’s (relatively) normal. And that he’s not the only one. Here—on this side of parenthood—it is so clear that all kids are a bunch of little freaks. They are a bunch of little walking balls of hormones and urges and ego…. Any parent of a boy could probably tell you a story of the first time they hugged their son and had the “rude awakening” of being greeted with his morning wood. Most parents could probably tell you about finding a daughter sleeping in the morning with her hands down her pants. It is humanity. It is perfectly natural. If you put something nipple-sized into a baby’s mouth, it will start sucking on it. And if a banister grazes against a boy’s crotch in just the right way, that boy is going to hump that banister. Especially if that boy was me….
And still, for whatever reason, I find it difficult to talk to my kids about sexuality. I don’t know what it is…. It’s like echoes of shame from a far away, long ago place—like voices whispering “You shouldn’t be talking about this sort of stuff.” But I’m here to tell you: THOSE VOICES ARE LIARS. The fear of speaking frankly, honestly, and openly to our kids is one of the main engines that enables the cycle of sexual abuse. So many of us are prudes with our children, and it is at their own peril. We are afraid to say “penis.” We are afraid to say “vagina.” We do our children a disservice when we listen to the voices of our youth, telling us to be ashamed…. And we do this at a time when 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys (or 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys, depending on who you ask) will be sexually abused before their eighteenth birthday.
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. One of the things I do when I’m not blogging is I educate kids about child abuse. There are still schools that shy away from our Child Abuse Prevention program–because the topic makes them a little too uncomfortable. And a big reason for this hesitancy is the fear that the parents will be angry if people talk to their kids about the “taboo” subject of sexual abuse. But if you could only see the things I have seen with some of these elementary-aged kids, you would be DEMANDING that programs like ours are coming to schools. We talk to them about what child abuse is, and about what child abuse isn’t. We teach them about the concept of an unsafe secret. We let them know that if someone tries to do something to them and gives them an uncomfortable, “uh-oh” feeling, that they can say “NO!” And before we leave, we always remind them of two very important things: 1) Child abuse is never, EVER a kid’s fault. And 2) This stuff is okay to talk about.
And that message is one that grownups need to hear as well. THIS STUFF IS OKAY TO TALK ABOUT. I know it’s not easy to talk about, but it’s okay to talk about. And beyond being “okay” to talk about, it’s desperately important to talk about. As parents, we can’t trust that our kids’ schools are going to do a sufficient job of educating our most precious people about this. You can’t leave something this important up to the hope that a program like mine will be coming to your child’s school. This topic is only as shameful as you let it be. Every kid poops. Every kid discovers their own sex organs. And every kid needs to learn about appropriate and inappropriate touching…. Without any shame involved. Maybe one of the best things we can do for our kids is to help them understand they don’t need to be ashamed.
There’s a point in our child abuse presentation where one of the puppets asks, “Do you still feel weird talking talking about stuff like this…. You know, kind of embarrassed?” And the girl who has experienced sexual abuse answers, “Not anymore, because I learned what happened to me is NOT MY FAULT.” And you know what? It’s not your fault either. It’s not your fault that you grew up being told that it was shameful to talk about sexuality. It’s not your fault that this kind of stuff is hard to talk about…. But if someday, someone is able to hurt your kid because you were too afraid to talk about this sensitive topic, you might bear some responsibility for that. Talk. To. Your. Kids. Let them know what child abuse is. Let them know that they are allowed to say, “NO!” Let them see that you’re not ashamed, and let them know they don’t need to be either.
And by the way, when you talk to them, use anatomically correct language. When my kids were littler (they’re still little), they developed the term “front-bottom.” I’m pretty sure it was entirely on their own. They had their “front-bottom” and their “back-bottom.” But those sorts of euphemisms are born out of a place of shame, and there should be no shame in using the right terminology. Referring to a private part as a “hoo-ha” or “thingy” or “flower’ or “noodle” is made of the same stuff that suggests to a kid that it’s too shameful to tell anyone about what happened. Every professional agrees that using anatomically correct language is best, including the American Academy of Pediatrics. You can do this! Repeat after me…. “Penis.” “Vagina.”
Last thing: If you just have no idea what to say when talking to your kids about child abuse, there are resources available. You can Google the words “How to talk to your kids about child abuse,” but beyond that, there are some great, kid-friendly books. Here are a few, with links to their Amazon page:
“It’s MY Body: A Book to Teach Young Children How to Resist Uncomfortable Touch”
“I Said No! A Kid-to-kid Guide to Keeping Private Parts Private”
“Your Body Belongs to You”
“Amazing You!: Getting Smart About Your Private Parts”
I salute you! Thank you for writing this! I am always saying the same thing- sexuality is not something to be ashamed of it is natural and the reason so many people don’t talk about it if something bad happens is because they don’t fully understand! I hope this helps some people who don’t know!
“Front-bottom” is awesome. It’s spatially specific and gender-neutral. With language, I prefer to: “Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send.” Conservative, in this case, means you avoid causing problems (with feminists) but otherwise give as much information as possible.
For the point of your post, I’m inclined to agree, mostly because taboos are generally a bad thing. If abuse can be traced to this one, all the more reason to nix it. But you won’t catch me picking that battle in conversation. (Not having kids makes this decision easier.)
To clarify: I use gender-neutral language as a matter of course because of feminists; I don’t mean to imply they would have a particular problem with terms for genitalia. Although they probably would have the same problem with them as everyone else.
Excellent as always. More importantly, however, this is a critical topic. Thank you for sharing this and for being so direct with us – the parents that are unsure about having this conversation with their kids.