Ever since InTouch magazine broke the news, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. As a teenager, Josh Duggar, of the “19 Kids and Counting” fame, molested several young girls, allegedly* including several of his sisters. I have read way too many response pieces in the past few days, and yet here I sit to write one of my own. The Duggar family scandal has resulted in public outrage for many reasons:
- The fact that their Christian faith has served as a panacea of sorts for his ugly actions, almost excusing them due to the fact that he has been absolved by God of his sins.
- The family’s outpouring of support for their son, while apparently glossing over the undeniable damage done to their daughters.
- The message that response sends about how the Duggars taught their children about gender roles and the value of girls and women.
- Their stance against pre-marital sex and their public denouncement of homosexuality (in spite of the fact that one of their children sexually abused his siblings and others.)
- The family’s repeated reference to his actions as “past teenage mistakes” instead of labeling them as assault or abuse.
Yes to all of the above. There is just so much wrong with the situation, how it was handled then, and how the family is handling it now. I’ve read a number of brilliantly written, thoughtful articles on all of the above topics, and instead of drowning in that articulate chorus, I’d like to add a different layer. What if instead of continuing to throw stones at the Duggar family (which, please don’t misunderstand, they absolutely deserve to have thrown; in fact, scratch that. How about in addition to throwing stones at them?), we considered how we can keep our own children safe from sexual abuse?
Of course nobody really knows all that goes on in another family, but from an outsider’s perspective, it seems that teaching their daughters to value their own bodies and safety took a backseat in the Duggar family (perhaps in favor of indoctrinating them against gay people and kissing before marriage? I digress.), as evidenced by how much attention they have placed on how they have forgiven their son, and all their efforts to conceal his crimes years ago.
Did the Duggars sit down and teach their daughters, or for that matter, any of their children, that they were the boss of their own bodies, and that nobody ever had a right to touch them without their permission? Did they teach their girls that their comfort and safety absolutely trumped the “needs” or feelings of another person? I guess we’ll never know, but personally, I have my doubts.
But enough stone-throwing; how can we as parents do our best to make sure that our children—male or female— do not find themselves in the same position as Josh Duggar’s sisters? Because clearly, childhood sexual abuse is not limited to large, TV families with questionable values. It can happen to anyone. Maybe it happened to you as a child. Can any of us really wrap our heads around the fact that it could have happened to one of our children? As a parent, even thinking about it makes me want to vomit.
A few months ago, I attended a fantastic workshop called Parenting Safe Children. We learned about a practice known as “Body Safety,” and since then, we have integrated it into our family conversations and habits. Both of my daughters—even my three-year-old—are now fluent in body safety language. I strongly urge you to visit the Parenting Safe Children website, follow their Facebook page, and consider attending a workshop or purchasing a book.
What I love about Body Safety is that it goes beyond providing a list of things to do or not do. It introduces an actual value to our children. That value is: your body is important. It’s yours. Your comfort and safety matter more than keeping quiet, they matter more than avoiding hurting another child or adult who is harming you, they matter more than breaking a promise to keep a secret. You get to choose who touches you, and how. You are in charge.
Some of our body safety rules are:
- We are the bosses of our own bodies.
- Nobody is allowed to touch our private parts, unless Mommy or Daddy is helping us clean them, or we are at a doctor’s office AND Mommy or Daddy is there, too.
- We do not touch other people’s private parts.
- We know the names of our private parts.
- We can touch our own private parts, as long as we are alone in our rooms.
- We keep our clothes on when we play with friends.
- We don’t keep secrets in our family. (Even ones that seem harmless/fun, like “don’t tell your Mommy I let you have this candy,” as they can contribute to predators grooming victims.)
- If someone tries to, or does, touch our private parts, we try to get away and we always tell a grown-up, no matter what.
- Mommy and Daddy will always believe us.
These are just a few of them, and we have the full list hanging on our fridge, where everybody can see it: family members who come to visit, babysitters, and friends. We are sending a clear message that we are, to use a Parenting Safe Children phrase, an Off Limits Family.
These topics are difficult to talk about. With our kids, with their friends’ parents, with babysitters, with relatives. Talking about it makes us squirm. We’re afraid that we’ll offend someone or make another adult uncomfortable. But what is more important: avoiding potentially awkward conversations or protecting our children from sexual abuse?
One thing that we have done as a family to help defuse the uncomfortable nature of these discussions is to play “What if?” games with our kids. What if you were playing at a friend’s house, and they want to close the door and play a game where you take your clothes off? What would you do? What would happen if the neighbor tries to touch one of your private parts? One of the important aspects of the “What if?” game is that you must include people that seem ridiculous—the trusted aunt, your own parents, the beloved godparent. When our kids boldly state their response to these hypothetical scenarios, it is empowering. We take it as far as we can: “What if Grandpa told you not to tell anyone about what he did? What if he said he’d go to jail and it would be your fault? What if he said he would hurt your family?”
Nobody wants to think about this stuff, much less open our kids’ minds to a world where trusted adults might want to hurt them. But it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative, which is failing to give our children all the tools we can to keep them safe from predators, even the ones who attend the family reunions. There is no way that any parent can completely safeguard their children against becoming victims of sexual abuse. But what we absolutely can do is establish body safety as a family value, ensure that our children know they should always tell us if someone has broken their body safety rules, and assure them that we will listen and believe them. We can teach them that their bodies are sacred, important, and theirs alone, and that we value their safety.
Parenting Safe Children gives parents tools to help them spot grooming behaviors, to help them teach their kids about Body Safety, and to help them talk to babysitters, preschools, and childcare centers. We can, and should, be outraged at how the Duggar family, their friends and family, and even law enforcement handled Josh Duggar’s actions. But there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it. But what we can do is help to keep our own children safe.
*since the story broke, it seems that some of the victim information was redacted, as details should not have been made public. Note the use of “allegedly” in reference to Duggar’s sisters.
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