After Childhood Abuse, How Can I Trust Others with My Kids?
My first day watching porn was also my last. I was nine when an adult neighbor took me to a house where several of her friends were gathered. The men and women came knowing the agenda—to watch hours of pornographic videos. I was placed on a man’s lap, and the tapes were played. At one point, my neighbor asked if I “felt” anything. I said no, and the group laughed.
I remember the day now as the end of something immeasurably precious—the gift of being innocent and unashamed. I’ve often mourned for my nine-year-old self, her soul plundered and her naiveté stripped. I grieve for her and fear for my two small daughters. What images (and God forbid, touches) might be lurking, waiting to take their innocence? God help us.
We live in a country where kids’ online exposure to pornography is on the rise. Most children ages 10-17 have viewed porn one way or another; about a quarter report seeing unwanted pornography images in search results, emails, and pop-up ads. One in four women and one in six men are sexually abused before age 18. An abuser isn’t always the sinister stranger luring children from a slow-moving car. In most cases, perpetrators aren’t strangers at all, like the neighbor who exposed me to graphic videos before I even understood the nature of sex.
Ninety-three percent of child abuse victims know their abusers: 34 percent are victimized by family members (uncles, cousins, even siblings), 58 percent by acquaintances (neighbors, coaches, even pastors), and 7 percent by the stereotypical stranger.
While men are considerably more likely to sexually assault a child, abuse by women happens too. A study in 2000 found female child molesters make up 12 percent of offenders targeting kids under the age of 6; for older victims, women are responsible for just 3 percent of child sex abuse cases.
Run a Google search on a random day and will be probably find some recent story of a mother, sitter or female teacher charged with the sexual exploitation of a child. In my case, the person who took me to a house to watch porn was a lovely young woman—a good friend and neighbor I had grown to love. I remember many afternoons in her home; she would braid my hair as she chatted with friends. I was often included in these conversations. I felt noticed and enjoyed a sense of belonging.
Child abusers like these blend in well and represent people of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. Parents do well to exercise prudence and discernment in the communal care of their children. If perpetrators are watchful and deliberate in their intention to abuse, moms and dads must be equally, if not more, attentive in their duty to protect.
Maureen Farrell Garcia cautions parents to “love all without blindly trusting all.” Her advice is to know the common habits of abusers: She explains that sex offenders often groom children by giving them “special attention and privileges, engaging in affectionate touching, making sexual jokes, overlooking typical social cues and boundaries, spending an unusual amount of time together, and ‘teaching’ the child about each other’s bodies.” Many abusers work hard to become favorites with children until their courtesies grow suddenly dark.
Knowing this, what do I do with the notion that “it takes a church to raise a child?” My family belongs to a large church in southeast Washington, DC. The congregation is packed with older retired church “mothers and fathers” who love my children and are eager to welcome their company. In the same way, our family has grown accustomed to the presence of single adults who like to fellowship with us for both formal and unscheduled Bible studies. I enjoy these church family relationships and would hate for the risk of abuse to deprive my children of that same enjoyment.
So how do I balance these two ideas? How do I shield my children against the threat of sexual violation while also experiencing the good gift of community?
I believe that parental discernment is good counsel—but there’s another side to the equation. In addition to my own vigilance, and my daily prayers for God to help them, I must also teach my children to protect their bodies. Age-suitable conversations on anatomy and appropriate/inappropriate touches are essential to guarding my kids from sexual harm.
These talks can be difficult. This might explain why some parents remain alert without ever addressing children directly on these issues. My own words felt heavy and clumsy the first day I discussed private parts and secrets with my girls, then four and two. They struggled with their attention and I struggled with my sadness for even having to bring up the topic. Dialogues like these can feel strange and might even conjure up fears from the past. But they are worth it. Today, my eldest, now five, knows what parts of her body are “not for sharing.”
Justin Holcomb, a professor of theology, and his wife Lindsey, a counselor to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, believe that parents can safeguard little ones from the trap of sexual perpetrators with the help of some basic conversations. Four of their suggestions follow:
Clearly identify for your child which parts of their anatomy are private.
It might be uncomfortable at first, but use the proper names of body parts…Explain to your child that “some places on your body should never be touched by other people—except when you need help in the bathroom, or are getting dressed, or when you go to the doctor.” You can do this with young children during bath time or have your child dress in a bathing suit and show them that all areas covered by a bathing suit are “private.”
Talk about touches.
Be clear with adults and children about the difference between touch that is okay and touch that is inappropriate. To your child say something like: “Most of the time you like to be hugged, snuggled, tickled, and kissed, but sometimes you don’t and that’s okay Let me know if anyone—family member, friend, or anyone else—touches you or talks to you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable.”
Throw out the word “secret.”
Explain the difference between a secret and a surprise. Surprises are joyful and generate excitement, because in just a little while something will be unveiled that will bring great delight. Secrets, in contrast, cause isolation and exclusion. When it becomes customary to keep secrets with just one individual, children are more susceptible to abuse. Perpetrators frequently ask their victims to keep things secret just between them.
Report suspected abuse immediately.
You’ve read these steps, now consider yourself an advocate. Report anything you know or suspect might be sexual abuse. If you don’t, it’s possible no one else will.
We live in a post-Genesis 3 world in which children are exploited. Russell Moore states in his book, Tempted and Tried: “The canon of scripture shows us tracks of blood from the very edge of Eden outward. The biblical story immediately veers from paradise to depictions of murder, drunkenness, incest, gang rape, polygamy, and on and on, right down to whatever is going on with you.” And sadly, “what’s going on with you” might be the memory of abuse or hideous fears for your children.
Here, my heart remembers the God who follows bloody tracks. For the canon of scripture reveals his path as well. It traces the steps of a Snake-Crusher from the very edge of Eden to a cross on Calvary (Gen. 3:15; 1 Cor. 15:2-4). There, he bears the penalty for murder, drunkenness, incest, gang rape, polygamy, and on and on, right down to whatever is going on with you. And if Christ has born my sins then he can bear my burdens.
He is making all things new—Jesus Christ will rid the cosmos of every sin and its sting. He will wipe away every tear from our eyes and mourning, crying, pain, abuse and fear shall be no more for the former things will pass away (Rev. 21:4-5). Until that day, I will rise early from my bed, I will unpack my heart at his feet, and I’ll sing, even so Lord, come!
Nana Dolce was born in Ghana, West Africa; she lives today in Washington, DC with her husband, Eric, and two home-schooled daughters. She has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies and serves on staff at a local church. She blogs at motherhoodandsanctity.com.