Empowering Children to Understand Body Safety, Consent, and Appropriate Touch

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Almost every night before bed I tell a quick story to my 5- and 3-year-old sons. After I tell the story (which I make up on the spot) my oldest son often asks if he can tell a story. After I agree, he goes on and tells his own story from “once upon a time.”

He almost always integrates something from the story I just told but in his own way, sometimes repeating something over and over again, which sometimes prompts me to ask if his story is almost done. Usually from there he abruptly wraps it up with “the end.” Kids have vivid imaginations and it is one of the primary ways to make sense and meaning of the world.

If I tell my kids to simply stop doing something, it normally doesn’t work out and they continue to do it unless they make sense of why something should not be done. A few years ago, I recall hearing that many indigenous communities would tell their children stories of the monsters that live near the water’s edge to warn them of going into the water alone, or on thin ice.

So, a few years back, I experimented with storytelling as a way to teach my children not to run into the road. I told them the story of Simba and what happened when he went into the road where the water buffalo ran. I then asked them what needed to happen to save Simba from the water buffalo monsters. This, of course, is a stark story of Simba’s dad, Mufasa, dying (with probably too many emotions tied to it; but then again, if my child ran into a street and got hit by a car monster the devastation would be catastrophic).

So, after I tell them the story of Simba, I then ask them about the car monsters and what might happen if they go near the road without being careful, or without mom or dad. The story elicits a kind of healthy fear of something that they really do need to pay attention to.

In the work I have done in abuse prevention, I have wondered about ways to share stories with kids to help them learn about abuse. Many of us think our kids shouldn’t have to learn about this topic and that it is better to not have them “fear” other people or even think about anything like sexual abuse.

However, without healthy conversations and stories about their bodies, body parts, appropriate touch, respectful relationships, and consent, we are giving our young, vulnerable children no context to make meaning or sense of what is happening in a situation or relationship in which they are being victimized and exploited. 

To further give some context on reasons why we need to talk about this as parents and faith leaders, here are some stats on abuse that are especially grieving:

1. Survivors of abuse are numerous: 

  • 1 in 4 women have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner; (National Intimate Partner & Sexual Violence Survey)

  • 1 in 4 women and 1 out of 6 men are sexually abused in their lifetime; (Department of Justice)

  • 1 in 4 victims of intimate partner violence identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer; (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs)

2. Survivors usually know the person who is abusing them:

  • More than 90 percent of child sexual abuse victims know their attacker; (“Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement” by Howard Snyder)

  • In 8 out of 10 rape cases, the victim knows the attacker; (Department of Justice)

  • Nearly 6 out of 10 sexual assaults occur in the home of the person who is victimized or the home of a friend, relative or neighbor; (Department of Justice)

  • 13.3 percent of college women say they have been forced to have sex in a dating situation; (Journal of Interpersonal Violence)

3. Abuse is under-reported, and false allegations are rare:

  • Only 28 percent of victims report their sexual assault to the police; (Bureau of Justice Statistics)

  • Only about 2 percent of all sexual assaults reported to police turn out to be false; (US Department of Justice)

4. You likely know those who have been sexually assaulted at some point in their life:

  • 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys will be sexually assaulted by the time they reach 18; (US Department of Justice)

5. There is a 60 percent chance the cycle of abuse will end: 

  • About 30 percent of abused and neglected children will later abuse their own children, continuing the cycle of violence; (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

Clearly, abuse is an issue—and we need multiple ways of preventing and responding to abuse. Here are a few ways for parents and faith leaders to consider: 

Use Circle of Grace in your institutions

For many years Safe Church Ministry has promoted Circle of Grace as a safe environment program for children and youth to understand inappropriate touch, boundary violations, and abuse particularly in the context of being created by our triune God in love, conscious of their own circle of grace and that God is with them. We hope churches continue to systematically use Circle of Grace to empower children and youth in their programs a few times a year!

There are also a host of other resources that congregations and children's ministry leaders may supplement along with the Circle of Grace Curriculum to further teach children about:

  • Their bodies and the appropriate names of their body parts, 

  • Healthy boundaries, appropriate and inappropriate touch, 

  • How to recognize when something is not respectful, 

  • and empowering children to ask for consent and give consent when touch is appropriate.

Books to read at home, or at an appropriate time, possibly in addition to, or supplemented when using the Circle of Grace Curriculum: 

God Made All of Me: A Book to Help Children Protect Their Bodies, By Justin Holcomb & Lindsey Holcomb, Illustrated by Trish Mahoney

Justin Holcomb is an episcopalian priest and teaches theology and apologetics at Reformed Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Justin also serves on the board of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environment). Justin, in partnership with his wife, Lindsey have authored several books on topics such as trauma, abuse and domestic violence and many resources for parents along with children’s books like this one. 

This book helps children understand that every part of them was made in God’s image, and further goes on to teach children that it is ok to say no, even to those who you love, if you don’t want to be touched - and further to ask for help if a person doesn’t listen to you. This book also names “private parts” in appropriate ways and gives context for children to understand what is appropriate and what is not. This book equips both parents and children - and could be a terrific resource to use along with Circle of Grace. 

It's Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends (The Family Library) Paperback – Illustrated

A helpful book for parents to bring out when the inevitable questions and curiosities of life are asked! Designed to be used in a wide variety of ways, from reading all the way through, to finding something a six year-old can look at and a parent can read to give a bit more context. This book can be used in a variety of ways to talk about body parts, sex, how a baby is born and ongoing development of the body – and okay touches, not okay touches. 

Let’s Talk about Body Boundaries Consent & Respect: A Book to teach children about body ownership, respectful relationships, feelings and emotions, choices and recognizing bullying behaviors by Jayneed Sanders, illustrated by Sarah Jennings

Another helpful resource to reinforce a central message of Circle of Grace - when touch is appropriate and when it is not. While this book uses different language like “body bubble” rather than “circle of grace” it is a helpful narrative for a child to look at and read about children using their power to consent to touch and understand the boundaries of others and themselves, along with a host of items related to emotions, feelings, and what is respectful and behaviors that are harmful.

Do you have any books or resources to recommend? We'd love to hear them!

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