N.B. Anything that is written from here on is only my personal opinion and should not be taken as expert. If you are currently facing a difficult situation with your child regarding this topic I recommend you seek professional advice.
I don’t know about you but the thought of talking to my kids about this makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s awkward, personal and unclear…..the how, when and what to say.
I have thought about this for a long time, even before I had kids (yes I may be a little crazy). Why, you may ask? Because before I had kids of my own I was a community youth worker. I spent many years working in High Schools with kids and was exposed to some of what’s happening in their world. On top of that my husband is a primary school teacher which means I get the hear other stories of what is happening in that context. Also very recently I have heard a number of stories about what we would normally consider “innocent” interactions between children turning into something more harmful and abusive.
Equipped with this knowledge and experience I have been researching quite extensively the best approach to take with my kids when talking about sex, relationships, appropriate behaviour and abuse.
So what’s happening out there? Here’s what I know:
Stories about inappropriate sexual interactions and kids being sexually abused are common. More-so than I had imagined. WHY? I think the internet and online porn are two significant contributing factors. Kids are being educated about sex way before their little minds can really grasp what it all means. The other problem is that their education is warped when it is in the hands of porn and other kids.
All it takes is for one child in a class to be exposed to pornography online for the word to get out. How does this happen? An older sibling who thinks it is funny to show their younger siblings porn, kids who have unsupervised access to smart phones, tablets and computers who know the word “boob” or “breast” and think it could be funny to type it in. It can start with a simple picture but quickly take you to all sorts of disturbing places especially for tiny minds. Kids don’t look up words in a dictionary any more unless it’s in a classroom, these days they type it into Google Search and you can only imagine what might come up in the search results for “boobs”. If one child has seen something and thinks it’s funny or interesting they can quite easily share that with their friends and BAM EXPOSED!!
Kids are intrigued by sex and their bodies even from a young age, and this is very normal, HOWEVER that first foundation and exposure to what it all means is REALLY important.
The next step after exposure is where it gets really scary. Kids love to role play. They see things that adults do and mimic them because that’s what kids do. Just in the last week I have heard multiple stories from various different sources of kids (small kids 5 years old) role playing a number of different things one of the most disturbing being oral sex. YES that is very disturbing but it IS happening and we all need to be aware. It could be happening in back rooms while we are sipping lattes at friend’s houses or attending BBQ’s for a relatives birthday.
I’m not saying you, your kids, your friends kids, or your relatives are dodgy, but the things kids are exposed to these days beyond our control could be shaping their behaviour in a way that many of us have not experienced before in our lifetime. We have all had some education about the deviant guy in the car offering us lollies, or our friends weird uncle or some other cliché in terms of abuse BUT there is a growing area of concern for our kids these days and it’s a different or even new set of scenarios coming into play.
It is not just small children role playing but it is also older children getting smaller children to perform certain acts. By older children I mean 15 year old boys asking 5 year old girls to touch this or put that in their mouth. I don’t want to come off as hysterical but I have had things disclosed to me by young people, I have been in court to testify against perpetrators and I know that we have to protect our kids.
Where it starts to get blurry is that if a 5, 8 or 13 year old is getting other kids to act out and role play sexual behaviours because they have been exposed to extremely inappropriate content at a young age. In these cases they too are victims so it is messy.
Online pornography is setting the scene for our kids sex education from a young age and as much as you think you are protecting your kids from it, it is somewhat out of your hands. A friend of ours recently told us a story of their son and his friends accessing porn from their school library computer (there were blocks in place but if kids try hard enough and are creative enough they can find a way around them). Another common exposure is if just ONE of your child’s friends has a Smartphone with interact access then BAM they could see it, you can’t control it.
The problem is that the content is not mild, harmless, innocent pictures of nude men or women it is often hardcore, aggressive, unrealistic, warped sexual content.
SO what can we do about it?
The foundation that is laid in your child’s mind in terms of sex, what it is, how it works, and what it means is REALLY important. Like REALLY REALLY important and YOU need to be the person who lays the foundation in their developing mind before they get exposed to the way the world around us talks about sex and relationships, cue Myley Cyrus, Blurred Lines, online porn (you get the picture). And if you think that there aren’t any grade one kids that know every lyric to some of the those songs then you are being naive. The scary reality is they will get exposed at some point and there is not much you can do except to have educated and equipped your child to know what to do and what to think in a situation.
You need to talk to your kids, and talk to you kids, and talk to your kids, and talk to you kids. A phrase that has stuck with me for many years that I knew I must remember was “Talk Early, Talk Often”. You can’t think, they will be fine, it is too much of a risk. My daughter is 5 years old and she knows where babies come from, that her private parts are called her vagina, and that only mummy or daddy are allowed to touch her there for bathing but even now we think she is old enough to bath herself etc. She also knows that boys have penises and that they are also private. Best that she hears it from us and gets the story straight in her head than to hear it from somewhere else and then we have the huge task of trying to undo that. Our strategy has not been to sit her down and have a serious talk, but just to bring it up in natural conversation where appropriate. For example a good place to talk to your kids about their genitals is when they are in the bath. My hope is if my daughter ever needs to talk to me it will just come out natural and normal and easy. Anyone with kids knows they say the most random things at the most random times so it is our job to listen to our kids, pick up on what they are saying and go with that. This might not work for your child as they may respond to a sit down directed conversation. You just have to work out what works for your kids and talk to them.
I am not a cotton wool parent who never lets my kids have sleepovers or play dates when I am not there. I personally am comfortable doing both of these things and encourage my children in their independence. I have read research on the damage we can do to our kids if we spend all our time trying to protect them and don’t help them develop resilience, independence and the ability to make good choices in difficult situations.
One strategy that research has shown is also a really effective way to help educate and teach your kids some skills is to role play different scenarios with them. Kids need to know you don’t always have to do what adults and big kids tell you. They find it a bit easier to tell kids their own age “no”, but it can be harder when adults or bigger kids ask for things. When you get your children to role play scenarios with you give them practice and confidence in how to say “no” and make good choices. Then if they ever face a scenario in real life they will have more confidence and know what to do.
Another interesting fact is that if some kind of inappropriate situation has happened involving your child they will often bring it up with a significant adult who is not their parent. This can often be a teacher, an older sibling or friend (cousin, neighbour, grandparent). Often kids feel like they have done something wrong so are more hesitant to tell Mum and Dad but they do want to tell someone and it is often another significant grown up in their life. So I have made sure my kids have lots of significant grownups in their life other than me and hubby who they can talk to. If something was to happen to either of my daughters I don’t care who they tell first but just that they feel comfortable to tell someone so word can get back to us. I hope it would be me but I can’t control that.
The last thing I want to say is make sure you are calling your child’s private parts by the correct name. I am aware of cases where primary school aged children have told their teacher that so and so was touching my miffy, little did the teacher know that miffy was actually her vagina. One might think it was a toy she brought to school. We need to empower our kids with the correct information and get there before their friends and the internet does.
I don’t want you to be freaked out, just alert and realistic and understand the need to protect and talk to your kids. At an absolute minimum it is recommended to do this once they are 8 years old but some research is saying even that is too late? You don’t have to tell them everything and give them lots of detail but you need to set the scene. You need to make it normal to talk about. You need to try and ease their discomfort talking to you and let them know they are never in trouble if they want to ask you a question and that you will always take them seriously and give them a proper answer.
It can be crazy times out there for our kids when it comes to their understanding and experience of sex and it is our job as parents to educate them because if we don’t and we leave it up to their friends and the internet then…….
I hope this has been helpful and not freaked you out too much 🙂
Written by Sam Shazzam aka School Mum with help from her husband Simon Jockel who runs the Exposed Project which educates young people about the impact online pornography is having on their understanding of sex and relationships, www.exposedproject.org and exposed project on facebook. You can also find out more detailed information about this topic with some researched stats in this video below …