Larry Nassar, once a world-renown sports physician to our country’s top female gymnasts, was convicted and sentenced last week for sexually abusing over 150 women and girls under his care. The details that emerged during the trial were heart wrenching. One of the most stunning revelations was the fact that many parents were actually physically present in the room while their daughters were being molested.
The guilt these parents are suffering must be unbearable. As is the terror this story stirs in every parent’s heart, knowing that we too might have missed what was happening in front of us. But the unsettling truth that has emerged from all of this is clear: We cannot always protect our children in the way that we know.
We cannot always shield them. We cannot always track them. We cannot always cover their eyes or ears. We cannot always ban their books or block their devices. We cannot always forbid them. We cannot always ground them. We cannot threaten them. We cannot lock them away in a room forever. Sometimes, we cannot protect our children from our worst nightmare, even as we stand in the room, feet away, watching…
So what can we do? Is there something? Here is what we learned from some wise people at the Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development — people who have spent decades working with and understanding children. Here is what we also learned from our children:
To protect our kids, especially from sexual violation, we must inoculate them.
We aren’t talking about mercury-laden vaccines. We are talking about helping our children develop their own inner resources so that they can stand on their own in the world without us. Because our children are never really safe unless they know how to protect themselves from the inside-out.
There are 3 things to keep in mind about this form of inoculation.
- It happens early.
- It happens deliberately.
- It happens through our relationship with our children. Not with the teacher, not with the nanny, not even with grandma. It happens with us. Because at the end of the day, what we have to say is what matters most to our kids. It’s the thing that sticks.
Can we be more specific? The vast majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the child and/or family. So here is your goal: You want your kid to be the one a pedophile wouldn’t dare to go near. You want your kid to put out that vibe that lets a pedophile know that he doesn’t stand a chance. And if that ped gets anywhere near your child? You want your kid to be the one to move away or kick and scream if need be, long before anything happens. And God forbid, if it happens? You want your kid to be the one who knows his rights and knows unequivocally that what just happened was not okay. So that the healing can begin. Immediately. We all want that kid. Don’t we?
So how do we do this? How do we inoculate our children? Let’s start by teaching our kids early on that their bodies belong to them. And only them. They don’t belong to the sitter, the daycare worker, their siblings, their friends….or later, their boss. And here’s the important part. Their bodies don’t even belong to you. We are the first “other” in our children’s lives. Allowing them their God-given right to have say over their beautiful, wonderful, amazing bodies – even with us – is a great first step.
Teach them about privacy. Teach them to close the doors. Teach them that even you, the parent, must always ask permission. This is not shame we are teaching them. It is respect. When a kid is immersed in this kind of respect from the get-go, anything less becomes unacceptable, no matter what the perpetrator is offering — candy, friendship, a spot on the US Olympic team, or a movie part. It’s just not worth it. She is already and inherently too valuable for these trade-offs. She should never have to say #MeToo.
Continue to model respect by listening, hearing, believing, and responding to what she has to say. This is how she learns to trust herself when something doesn’t feel right. This is how she learns to use her voice to tell someone. This is how you inoculate your kid from pedophiles.
This is empathic parenting. Parenting in a way that aligns us and our children from the inside-out. We can never forget that empathy is a contact sport – of being there, a lot, in the right ways. The little moments add up….to the script that plays in their heads, body feelings that emerge under stress, and instincts that manifest, whether you are there or not.
Picture: 15-year-old Emma Ann Miller addresses Larry Nassar with her mom while her mom looks on NBC news
Thanks to Eva Basilion for her contributions to this post.