It is early Saturday morning. I usually head out for a long run. Today, however, an injury is keeping me from hitting the tranquil trail. Not to mention the nonstop rain. I pour myself a cup of coffee to fire the cylinders in my brain and settle in to watch the national news.
The first news segment to catch my attention announced that the young man at the east coast prep school has been found guilty of statutory rape, not felony sexual assault charges. Here is the report from The Today Show:
St. Paul’s School rape trial prosecutor: Case highlights need for dialogue about sexual assault.
I was pretty excited to hear this lawyer speak out about educating our young people. Like, really excited. So excited I had to write about it.
I am not a lawyer or judge, nor was I a member of the jury. The laws are clear, but the the situation is murky. He said, she said. What is true? What is real? It seems this scenario is being played out with more frequency, especially among athletes. It is not my job to convict, however I would like to take this opportunity to educate parents on the importance of conversation with your child to help prevent these situations from traumatizing your family.
“Stranger Danger” is a concept parents grapple with almost the moment our precious being arrives into our world. The fears perpetuated by unsavory news stories suddenly hit home. Certainly we do not want our children to be unfriendly to strangers – after all, most people are kind and wonderful. However, what if they are not? What if they are creepy? Who knew Jared the Subway guy would turn out to have, shall we say…”issues”? Jared?!
When children are small, we have basic conversations with them regarding safety.
- We explain to children about good touch, bad touch.
- We devise special “code words” that only other trusted adults will know just in case we are unable to pick them up from an activity. These are “safe people” our children can trust.
- We teach children to keep their distance from people they do not know, yet smiles and greetings are still okay.
- We explain only adults should assist other adults. That lost puppy Mr. Danger needs help locating is not their responsibility.
- Finally, one of the most important lessons we can begin teaching our young kids is to follow their gut. If something does not feel right, then it probably is not. It is a tough concept for adults, much less kids, however it is an important aspect of learning self-reliance.
When looking at the above list of safety rules we instill in our children, there is a common thread:
If a situation does not feel or look safe, avoid it.
As our kids grow older, they have more freedom, gain more independence, and meet new people of all ages. They begin to date; first in group situations, then as couples. Before you know it, they are off to college. No longer are you with them on a daily basis, assessing their mental/emotional state as parents tend to do. No longer are you able to look them in the eye to see if something is troubling them. No longer are you able to meet the men and women in their lives that can significantly impact their world. You hope what you taught them about being safe and responsible as they were growing will surface when the situation warrants. In other words, you hope that they remember the simple idea that:
If a situation does not feel or look safe, avoid it.
As a community of humans, what can we do?
Because the statutory rape of the student happened within the confines of an educational institution, it is imperative that learning institutions take notice and address these tough issues with their students. Instituting comprehensive sexuality heath education (CSE) beginning with the youngest of students is a conversation that is completely overdue. Yes, that is correct. Even in Kindergarten. Learning about respect for self and others, healthy relationships, and how to navigate around unsafe and uncomfortable situations is a major component of this type of education. Sound familiar? It is exactly what you are teaching your child.
As students move into higher grade levels, they are faced with very real situations that require considerate and thoughtful responses. These assertive responses should be predetermined and practiced before the situation hits them head-on. Starting the conversations in Kindergarten and building upon that knowledge rather than waiting until high school when discussion is ‘too little, too late’ is a change that is overdue.
CSE curriculum offers guidance and reflection on students’ future goals and how to reach those aspirations. It focuses on decision-making, respect for others, and personal safety. It offers opportunity for discussion among students of all identities and orientations to enable understanding and mutual respect.
So, what can parents do to help our young people navigate unhealthy situations?
- Start the conversation with our children at a young age about appropriate touch, gut-instinct, goals, and respecting others.
- Encourage dialogue among their peers, in the schools, in community organizations, and with their sport teams.
- Keep the conversation alive with your child. Media-driven discussion makes it easy. My daughter and I have had several conversations about the many high profile rape charges dotting news reports lately.
- Ask open-ended questions that allow your child to give thoughtful responses about safe and unsafe situations.
- Encourage schools to adopt CSE curriculum so students benefit from co-ed discussion and diverse perspective.
As parents, we spend much of our conversation educating, or rather sermonizing, our kids – “don’t do this, don’t do that”. However, lecturing kids is not the most effective approach. Granted, your children do need to know how you feel; your family rules and expectations convey your value system and sets limits on behavior. That is a good thing. However intrinsic desire to make good choices, not merely rules and regulations, is the most effective means to keep children as safe as possible when making choices to drink, drug, engage in sex, or any other decisions they may be faced with.
Yes, I know. Merely adopting the mantra of “if a situation does not looks or feel safe, avoid it” will not keep our children from facing situations that are compromising. If only life were that simple. However, by instilling the idea that we can make decisions that are wise and responsible, we give our children just one more life skill they can intrinsically rely on as they emerge into the adult world.