Hey Dr. G, I am sending my 10-year-old son to sleep away camp for the first time this summer. I trust that the camp is a safe place with responsible people. At the same time, it is the first time that he will be out of my care, and I feel that I should talk with my son about his body and what kinds of touching is and is not acceptable. We’ve always talked about the “private areas” starting when he was little, but I feel that the conversation has not progressed past the 4-year-old concepts and terminology, (probably because my son has never asked many questions about this topic.) I want to make sure my son knows how to protect himself, speak up, and tell an adult if he ever found himself in a compromising situation (at camp or anywhere else), but at the same time, I don’t want to scare my son by talking about molestation. What do I say? Where do I start?
Anonymous, in PA
Kudos to you for addressing this scary but important topic! Most parents put their metaphoric fingers in ears and hope this will never happen to their family. This approach does not empower kids or build resilience. While it is likely (thank goodness) that your son will never be molested, he will hear all kinds of “facts” about bodies and sex while he is away from you. Knowing that his parents are the go-to place for accurate information is really protective.
First, here are a few general thoughts about how to approach this issue.
- Don’t look at this as one conversation. This is a series of (probably very short) talks where you establish your open, nonjudgmental ear and your “expert” cred, and then move it forward in an age-appropriate way over years.
- Don’t connect these talks to “camp” in his mind. These are body privacy issues, applicable everywhere.
- Sitting down and “talking” (cue the heavy music) is only one of the ways to get him thinking critically about these issues. You can use books, movies, songs or TV shows to introduce ideas. Watch together and then ask him questions like “Is that relationship equal? Did you think that person like being touched that way? What could they do? Who could they talk to?”
Now, how in the world do you approach body privacy for an elementary schooler? Take heart! You’ve already done some of the work! Don’t forget to talk about this with your parenting partner before you talk to your child.
- Figure out what you want your child to know before he goes to camp.
- Sounds like you’re already there about molestation – you want him to know that he has complete control over who touches him and where, and that being touched in a way he doesn’t like is a “reportable” offense.
- Pick one phrase or a few words you want him to take away from these conversations.
- “My body is only mine” or
- “Nobody touches me but me.”
- “Privacy, control, comfort.” Or whatever makes most sense to you.
- Decide how much information is enough. Complete disclosure may not be crucial.
- Without scaring him, you may still need to say “an adult or another person might try to touch you in a way you don’t like, here is what you can do:”?
- If he scoffs at such an idea, will you tell him some truths about real events?
- If you had a bad experience or his Dad did, will you share it with him?
- Figure out what you’ll say if he asks a question you’re not ready to answer. Perhaps “That is a good question, but it’s more than I wanted to talk about tonight. Can we leave it to another time?” This sets up the expectation that this is an ongoing dialogue.
- Start the conversation with questions.
- “Has anyone ever touched you in a way you didn’t like?” “What did you do about it?”
- “Who’s allowed to touch your private areas?”
- “Are you allowed to touch someone else’s private areas? What if they ask you to?”
- “What would you do if a friend or a grown up did that?”
- Listen to his answers, keep your suggestions shorter than his ideas.
- Get your key words or phrase into the conversation over and over. Get him to tell you the words.
Last point – I have been a camper and a counselor at overnight camp. It is unlikely that he is in any danger, but you are right to want to talk to him about these issues. Don’t forget to talk to him about the basics of sex before hand, as he is likely to hear all kinds of ideas about this from other ten- and eleven-year-old boys while away. You want him to feel empowered by your information, so that he doesn’t believe every crazy idea he hears!
Two of my boys are headed to camp for the first time this summer, I feel ya! (But not in that inappropriate way we’re talking about here).