In our work with young children, we are actively engaged in creating a world where sexual abuse doesn’t exist! Today, however, it is still an unfortunate reality that gender-based violence, including sexual abuse of children, exists within systemic power structures based on coercion, domination, exploitation, and oppression.
Knowledge about our bodies within a framework of mutual respect and consent is the primary and initial way we empower humans and keep children safe from sexual abuse. This begins with the work of empowering young children to exist in their own physical bodies without shame through the ways we interact with and teach them about their own bodies.
We can intentionally introduce the language of safety and consent. We can build awareness and acknowledge where we reinforce or perpetuate ideas that result in a culture where domination over bodies is normalized. We can challenge the status quo! For example, what sort of message is perpetuated with a onesie printed with the words, “lock up your daughters”? Is this simply a “cute” baby outfit, or is there a deeper suggestion that “boys will be boys” and daughters must be locked up in order to be safe from rape or sexual assault? What would it look like to perpetuate a culture of safety, consent, and respect, starting from birth?
At the same time that we seek to dismantle systems that perpetuate coercive ideas and ultimately allow sexual abuse to occur, we must also cultivate and intentionally move towards an environment where all bodies experience physical, mental, and emotional safety. In a world with an unavoidable, inherent amount of uncertainty and risk, a world of safety based on mutual respect and consent means both challenging what currently is, and imagining what might be possible.
Adults are ultimately responsible for keeping children safe from sexual abuse, but empowering bodily safety, awareness, and autonomy for a young toddler is quite different than for a teenager or older child based on different developmental needs. While the body of an infant always belongs to that infant, they are also wholly reliant on a safe adult touching their private parts appropriately. A teenager can bathe and care for themselves, but a baby cannot!
Penises, Vulvas, and Anuses, Oh My!
The first way that children learn about their body and Body Safety is through routine caregiving needs, particularly toileting and bathing. As children develop, they grow in independence and the capacity to care for their bodies. To a young child, private parts of their body are first introduced as areas covered by a diaper where poop and pee come from. They rely on trusted and safe adult caregivers to teach them accurately about their body, which is foundational to their bodily safety as they mature.
This information should be factual (anatomically correct), presented matter-of-factly, and without shame:
- During a diaper change- provide language and narrate what you see: “Oh, I see that you have poop in your diaper. Poop comes out of your anus! Let’s help your body feel clean by wiping your anus!”
- During bathtime-help them learn the names of their body parts and practice language of consent and giving choices: “It’s time to wash your body! Can I help you wash your knees first? Now can I help wash your arms? What should we wash next- your vulva or your anus?”
- During times of self-exploration- name without shame and create safety around a teachable moment: “Oh, I see your hands are touching your penis right now! We keep our private parts private covered with our underwear because that’s where pee comes from. Do you want to sit on the toilet?”
Within a safe and secure context (a relationship between a child and parent/caregiver), it is also our responsibility to teach through modeling what safe and appropriate touch looks and feels like. Because humans are wired for connection and attachment within secure relationships, we want to ensure that our efforts to keep children safe from sexual abuse don’t inadvertently create fear over any physical touch, which is also necessary for the thriving and well-being of all humans. Our objective is for children to learn from us that their bodies belong to them and we’re here to help them experience safety in their bodies by showing them what safety and consent look like.
Humans are born into a physical body. Our role in supporting whole-child development is to guide them to be knowledgeable, safe, and empowered in their physical body and know that their body belongs to them. We seek to keep children safe, empower and equip them to participate in their own safety, and become people who are safe with their own bodies and the bodies of others. This work begins from birth, and it begins at home within our own families. We are always our child’s first teachers!