October is Child Abuse Prevention Month, a cause that strongly aligns with ANBU.
As much as we want to be there at all times to shield our children from harm, there are ways of protecting them that do not involve our constant physical presence. In reality, a good portion of their daily lives is spent away from us in environments we can’t control or even observe. So what steps can we take to ensure our children’s safety and wellbeing?
This daunting task becomes more manageable through three practices: education, empowerment and communication. By equipping children with the tools they need to identify potential situations of abuse, we can ensure their safety when we aren’t there to intervene. We are their caregivers, protectors and supporters, but we need to empower them and cultivate a sense of autonomy within them so they can take an active role in their safety. These are vital skills that set up a strong foundation of self-worth, confidence and self-respect, which children take with them into other stages of life. Sexual education is one avenue you can take to develop these skills in them.
Early on, kids seek to understand the complexities of human life. With their boundless curiosity, they ask questions that sound shocking and amusing to us adults. These are questions that make many of us nervous! There’s a lot of pressure, considering that what you say could shape a child’s perspective of a very important but sensitive topic. For us in the Tamil community, responding to these questions can feel like unchartered territory. A lot of us didn’t grow up having these conversations with the adults in our lives. We may not have a point of reference from our families to use but there are other sources of information and guidelines (like Toronto Public Health).
Sex education is a debated topic, especially in Ontario. How much do our kids need to know? Everyone has their own opinion on the issue. Despite your values about it, the reality is that children are getting sex education from everywhere. It’s not just from school or their peers, these messages come from movies, television, magazines, billboards…which can be found pretty much anywhere they go. And this isn’t explicit material; it’s content that we consider to be normal in our society. But they still influence our views and understanding of things like body image, gender roles and sexuality, no matter what your age! All this information that our children receive is going to raise a lot of questions in their curious minds.
Rather than shy away, avoid or give incomplete answers to these questions, take them as opportunities to build your child’s understanding of sex and sexuality as well as their own body ownership and safety.
As part of ANBU’s video series, this month’s video was a continuation of our interview with Tharani Selvanathan from Toronto Public Health. Tharani guides us through a very useful system of responding to children when they ask those age-old questions using a Four-Point Plan.
Here’s what the Four-Point Plan entails:
Instil a sense of confidence in your child by commending them for asking the question in the first place. It takes a lot of courage to approach adults with these questions. Your child could have been conflicted about coming to you for answers about sensitive topics. To ensure that they continue to confide in you (instead of going to other sources like the Internet or their peers), thank them for their openness with warmth and kindness. Before answering their question, set an atmosphere of comfort and mutual respect to let them know that they can come to you to talk about these topics.
Answer the question truthfully. Now, that doesn’t mean disclosing all the details. Give them the facts that are appropriate for their age. You could be asked the same question at age 5 and again at age 10 but the answer you give at each stage will be different. Sometimes, you won’t be able to answer questions if their subject matter is beyond what your child needs to know at a particular age. In those situations, you can respond truthfully and gently by saying that now is not the right time for you to give them an answer but you can revisit the question later on. A similar response can be given for questions you don’t know the answer to (because let’s be honest…no one knows everything). As long as you don’t give false or unclear information, there’s no harm done. Some kids are really good at catching those types of responses! Just keep it simple and age-appropriate.
Here’s where you can incorporate your own family/cultural/religious/social values into your response. This will also give your child a point of reference for identifying unsafe situations. Keep in mind that as they grow up, your child might develop values that don’t exactly align with what you say here, especially for topics like sexual orientation and gender identity. Kids have their own experiences in life that will shape their values and identity. But what you teach them about safety, personal boundaries and body ownership is vital in establishing a sense of autonomy. This information will keep your child safe because it makes it infinitely more difficult for abusers to take advantage of them.
Children obviously can’t do all the heavy lifting when it comes to their safety. The responsibility component has to do with their communication with you. It’s to make sure that you stay informed about your child’s social environments and who they interact with. If your child finds themselves in situations that make them feel uncomfortable, they have a responsibility to tell you about it. Don’t treat it as a reporting system, which could be intimidating to a child and even make them feel guilty of situations they had no control over. See it as a time when your child can confide in you. Set up that trust, comfort and openness that will ensure that they come to you in times of need.
Let’s look at a situation where you could use this plan:
You’re at home with your family, watching television. An advertisement comes on where two adults are kissing. Your young child, age 5, asks why people kiss like this. Following the Four-Point Plan, here’s how you could possibly respond:
1) Confidence: start by commending your child for asking by saying “that’s a good question” or “that’s an interesting question”
2) Truth: answer by saying “this is how some adults show affection towards each other”
3) Values: specify that only adults show affection in this manner, children do not
4) Responsibility: tell your child that if anyone tries to kiss them like this, they should tell the person no and immediately come and tell you about it
It can be uncomfortable to speak with children about sex education but it is vital for their wellbeing. Imagine a child comes to you with a question about something they heard in the schoolyard, or worse, from someone threatening their safety. The way the child might bring up the topic is by asking a question. If you avoid or dismiss their question, there could be a lot of information that you miss out on because 1) you bring your conversation to an abrupt end and 2) they now feel like they can’t come to you with these kinds of questions. Whether or not there’s a situation of abuse going on, children need at least one trusted adult who is willing to listen to what they have to say.
If you want more information on raising sexually healthy children, you can contact Toronto Public Health at 416-338-7600. You can also visit their website and find resources and fact sheets in several languages, including Tamil.