Normally, there’s no way of knowing who among those who interact with our kids could be a threat to them. There are exceptions, but they’re rare. In my 24 years raising four boys, I’ve had the displeasure of knowing five male sex offenders, and only one of those was on my radar as a potential threat to kids. I will always look back and wonder whether there was more that I could have done to ensure that all kids who crossed his path would be safe. Unfortunately, the answer to that is likely no.
Our kids are exposed to abuse from everyone they come into contact with, but boys are statistically less likely to report abuse than girls. I would recommend that one of the most important things you can do for your sons is to educate them early on. Establish lines of communication with them, discuss how their day was, talk about the easy things so that when they have a bad day, or if something untoward happens to them, the lines of communication are already open and they feel more comfortable sharing with you. Teach them the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touch, and what to do if someone is crossing that line. Empower them to use their voice early on, and let them do the talking. Let them know that you’re open to hearing everything that they have to say.
If you think there is abuse going on, getting a trained therapist involved immediately is of the utmost importance, even if they seem ‘OK.’ Take immediate action. If you’re seeing inappropriate behavior from one of the people that interact with your kids, but it hasn’t crossed a line, say something to those that are in a position to do something about it before it’s too late.
Again, males are less likely to report sexual abuse than females, so it’s especially important to teach your sons early on that others should be respectful of their bodies, and that it’s okay to talk to you if something happens. Be aware that boys are much more hands-on than girls, and may therefore be less likely to question touching—rough-housing, the slap on the rear from the football coach, and being hiked onto the coach’s shoulders is considered ‘normal’ in boys’ sports, but you’ll never see a female swim coach or ballet teacher slap her female charges on the rear as a ‘way to go.’ So why is it seen as ‘normal’ for our boys, even in the face of all the sexual abuse that’s come to light over the last 50 years?
I want to address the question of appropriate and inappropriate touch, especially since it’s been in the news a lot lately. In this day and age, protection from false allegations towards those that work with our kids is just as important as protecting our kids, so creating hands-off policies, and policies that ensure child and youth workers are always well supervised is also essential. The individual that I worked with was very hands-on with the boys that he interacted with, and those of us that worked with him made it clear to management that we were concerned. Our concerns were taken seriously, and widespread measures were put into place that ended the roughhousing and physical play that he was engaging in with the boys (it was a co-ed group, but he focused his attentions on the boys.) As far as we know, these measures were successful in preventing sexual abuse in our group, however, he later sexually assaulted kids from another organization that he worked with.
It’s important to acknowledge that just because the touching going on isn’t sexual, it doesn’t mean that it won’t progress to sexual, inappropriate touching, or even assault or rape; someone who insists on being overly hands-on with their younger charges may not be crossing any lines, yet—but it may be an indicator that precautions need to be put in place. The boys he interacted with thought it was fun, and some parents saw him as very interactive, and felt he was engaging with the boys at their level. We never had a single complaint about him in the years that I worked with him—think about that—those of us who worked with him all had concerns, but not a single parent was concerned with the way he behaved around their sons, and none of the boys ever expressed any concerns. That alone should tell us that parents, kids, and supervisors need to be better educated about touching in sport and recreation.
While non-sexual touching may be innocent in some cases, it’s inappropriate. It teaches boys that it’s okay for others to touch them and interact with them physically, and they may not know how to react when someone crosses the line. Furthermore, the child may not even realize that a line has been crossed until it’s too late, or even until later in their lives.
Frankly, a hands-off policy should be in place regardless of the situation, except when it’s obviously required (physiotherapy, physical manipulation to demonstrate technique in sport, etc.). Even then, limits should be in place, and the permission of the participant should always be sought before putting hands on the individual. As a Personal Trainer, I’m very cognizant of my clients’ personal space, and always ask permission before touching them, even though it’s part of my job. (i.e. “is it OK if I place my hands under your elbows to spot you?”)
You can’t protect your kids from everything, but there are a few things that you can do to minimize the risk of physical or sexual abuse. One organization that my kids are a part of has a very strict policy that requires a minimum of two organizers be present at all times. While this policy presents some challenges with uncooperative kids and kids with special needs, it protects the kids not only from potential abuse from organizers, but also from older participants in the program, while also protecting the organizers from false allegations of abuse.
Familiarize yourself with the policies of the groups and organizations that your kids will be involved in, and get involved in any way you can. If possible, attend practices and competitions. Join the boards or committees of the groups that your kids are involved in so that you can influence policies and procedures and affect change where necessary. Seek out daycares that make use of surveillance cameras that you can check in on with your mobile device. Be aware of what’s going on with your boys, and try not to let them be in situations where they will be alone with their elders. Above all, always, always emphasize to them that what happens to their body is up to them, and that they have a right to say no to any unwanted touching, sexual or otherwise, and let them know that no matter what they share with you, they have nothing to be ashamed of, and whenever they share anything with you, good or bad, always show them that you’re interested and supportive.
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