Nathalie's Notes: For the record, the school did notify parents, as required and somehow between the school, the backpack and home I missed this particular memo. I love Sam's school and think the world of his teacher so that was not the point of this story at all. I've added some emphasis to highlight that in no way did I intend for the takeaway to be that the school did anything wrong.
By Nathalie Hardy |Apr 3, 2014 |News-Register
Last month, my son came home from school with a flier from Juliette’s House informing me he’d participated in the agency’s Safe Kids informational program, designed to teach children about abuse prevention.
I know this is a sensitive, difficult subject. But I believe it’s one we must talk about — out loud and often.
Though the school did sent notice to parents that this day was coming, I didn't see it. So, through no fault of the school, I was a little surprised to be finding out after the fact that my kindergartner had been exposed to this information without me having a chance to prepare.
Prepare who, my husband wondered when I told him how I felt.
Well, me, of course. Because truthfully, I was more comfortable talking to other people about the (insert the worst adjective ever here) reality of child abuse than I was imagining a day when my son would need to hear candidly that bad things not only happen, but they can happen to him.
I’ve lost sleep with worries of what could happen to him. But I didn’t want him losing any over it.
After looking over the program material, and giving it some thought, I understand now that the truth is, he will lose less sleep if he is confident he can handle situations as they present themselves. And frankly, I will too.
If you asked him what he should do in the event of a fire, he’d say, “stop, drop and roll” and “call 9-1-1.”
But if he was on the first floor when a fire broke out at home, he would tell you he’d get out of the house and head for a neighboring house. That’s because we have discussed a variety of what-if scenarios in a calm way, talking through different circumstances.
So I decided to follow up on the school presentation with a little bit of the same. I gave him some scenarios and asked what he thought he could do to stay safe.
“If someone wants to give you a ride, would you get in?” He shook his head.
“But what if they’re super nice and offer you candy?”
“Well, no, I still wouldn’t, because it might have red dye in it.” Okay, that’s not quite what I expected.
“What if they tell you I’m hurt and you have to go with them?”
“Why would a stranger come for me?” Perfect!
“What if they had a Lego Ninjago set for you?”
Sam paused before answering, “Well, that’s a tough one, Mama. Because I am trying to add to my collection, you know.”
Clearly, some more discussion followed.
You never know what a kid is thinking until you have a conversation like this. So I would encourage anyone who has a kid they love to have a similar one, and sooner rather than later.
Eventually, as I danced around the main point, my husband blurted it out: “Look, buddy, there are some adults who hurt children. On purpose.”
It was heartbreaking to watch my 6-year-old process that reality. We sat at the table quietly as it sank in.
“So who are those people?”
“That’s the problem,” I said. “You can’t tell by looking. We have to use other clues to figure it out.”
Then we talked some about intuition and what it means to let your gut be your guide.
I think children come into the world with keen intuition, and that survival tool is actually scrubbed away over time by mostly well-meaning adults.
So by the time we are adults, many of us ignore little signs of danger, then big, waving red flags, until it’s too late. As a consequence, we get incidents like the one occurring on New Year’s Eve in Sheridan, where a 4-year-old was beaten nearly to death, allegedly by his mother’s boyfriend.
According to police reports, the boy started biting his nails and wetting his bed shortly after his mother moved in with her boyfriend — a police officer, no less. The mother told police bruises started showing up, as well, and her boyfriend refused to let her bathe the child. Her child.
Education and awareness are the key to abuse prevention. After all, you have to learn the signs of abuse before you can look for them and flag them.
Plenty of kids bite their nails and wet their beds for reasons having nothing to do with abuse. However, I’d bet my life the sudden onset of both in this boy’s live were signs he’d come under danger, long before the more obvious ones were missed or dismissed, whichever the case may be.
If that little boy could talk, what would he say? Would anyone listen?
I ask because in 2012, an estimated 686,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect in this country, and 1,640 of them died from it, according to the National Children’s Alliance.
We need to be listening. We need to be talking about this, even when we’d prefer to pretend it can’t happen to the kids we love.
And one more thing, please. For the love of all that is holy, let’s stop silencing our children’s intuition in the name of good manners and convenience.
For the most part, I tend to let people be when they interact with my kids. I think it’s good for the boys to know the meaning of, “It takes all kinds.”
However, when someone uses shaming language on them, or uses language designed to override what I know to be my child’s intuition, I step in.
Yes, it can be awkward. But I don’t care, because I’m the mom.
Common interactions include others authoritatively instructing them to “be nice.” My kids don’t have to be nice. They have to be polite, but not necessarily nice. If they don’t trust someone, for whatever reason, I expect them to project that.
Also, I cringe at forced affection of the kind, “Give uncle so-and-so a hug.”
Early on in this kind of familiar social setting, we adults unintentionally start sending messages validating, or overriding, a child’s innate sense of safety.
The most obvious way I see it happening is the forced affection. My view is, if the kid’s not feeling it, don’t force it.
The other adult will either understand or be offended. Either way, it’s his or her problem. My job, as a parent, is to protect my kid’s right to set physical boundaries with people.
As most of us know, children are more likely to be abused by someone they know than a perfect stranger. They need to learn early and be reminded often that a parent will back them up, and it’s OK to say no.
I tend to use the, “OK, we’re leaving. Let’s give uncle so-and-so a hug or high-five.”
This gives the boys a choice and falls within my manners threshold.
I know this is going to freak some people out, so to be clear:
I’m not saying that if a child doesn’t feel like giving auntie a kiss there’s some sort of problem afoot. It could just be that the child is in a bad mood.
Perhaps the kid is holding a grudge because of an earlier denied cookie. Who knows?
My point is simply that we don’t always have to know why a kid isn’t comfortable with something. We just have to let them learn to process those feelings without forcing them to accept ours.
A final word on the forced affection issue:
If you’ve ever been on the painfully awkward end of watching a parent try to force a child to hug you, it pretty much sucks. Could we just all agree not to do that anymore?
For more information about the Safe Kids program, call Juliette’s House at 503-435-1550.
Contact Nathalie Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org.