I was at church, a place many would consider safe. When we arrived, I sent my kids to the bathroom before we sat down. My son returned, and midway through the speaker my son turned around, pointed at a man behind us, and said, “Mommy, that man tried to give me candy in the bathroom.” My uneasy spidey sense stood on edge, and I asked him more questions about where he was and what kind of candy, and tried to confirm the man he was pointing to. My son proudly told me he didn’t take the candy.
About 10 minutes later, my son turned around again and reached behind me, and I saw the man hand him two pieces of candy. My son exclaimed, “This time I took the candy!” This family is at our church each week. Although we aren’t friends, we do see each other regularly. Arguably, this could have been totally and completely innocent; however, it could have also been “grooming” — which is what child predators do long before inappropriate touching even occurs, in order to get children (and their families) to trust them.
There are lots of resources that talk about how to protect your kids from sexual abuse. Teaching kiddos the correct names for their body parts, not putting their names on the back of your car or on their backpacks, and being selective about how and when you share their pictures are all great ways to protect them. But the truth is, there are so many other ways your child could accidentally fall into the path of a child predator (even when you’re nearby), and many of those ways begin with grooming. While you read the ideas below, you may think “Seriously? That’s totally innocent.” And you could be absolutely right. That’s why grooming can be scary — because it can be so subtle that you brush it off as nothing.
- Offering gifts. There’s really no reason for a grown up to offer unsolicited gifts to a child, especially if he or she hasn’t asked the parent beforehand. When another adult approaches your kid and offers something without your prior approval (even if right in front of you), this shows the kiddo that the other adult has a direct relationship with him or her, and it’s okay to consent without mommy. Set the boundary early that your kids aren’t allowed to take things from others unless you personally tell them it’s okay.
- Touching. Innocent-looking touching, like a hug or pat on the back, is a precursor to inappropriate touching down the line. These kinds of touches desensitize kiddos and make them more comfortable with being touched by the predator. Similarly to giving gifts, doing so in front of a parent demonstrates to the kiddo that touching is okay. To help kiddos learn about touching, reinforce the notion that their bodies are their own. If they don’t want to hug grandma (even if it offends grandma), no problem. If the kids are wrestling and one jokingly yells “stop,” then stop the wrestling. Their words matter, and they should know that when the words are said, they should be taken seriously.
- Telling dirty jokes. Predators know kids are naturally curious about their bodies and sex as they navigate all their newfound knowledge of private parts. Some predators may use this as an opportunity to increase a child’s comfort with sexual conversation by telling dirty jokes, playing shady games, or talking about body parts in a casual fashion.
- Finding ways to be alone. Similarly, if an adult takes an unusual interest in your child and finds ways to use that interest to be alone with him or her, that can be a sign something is off. These scenarios can happen so naturally, you may not even think of it. For example, if you’re at a friend’s house enjoying a barbecue and you’re ready to go, but your child wants to stay, you might think it’s innocent that someone else offers to give him or her a ride later. Don’t feel pressured to make a change of plans. Along those lines, don’t feel pressured to let your child go somewhere without you . . . this applies to doctor’s or dentist’s office, church meetings, and school events. There are times, of course, when your kiddo may be with another grown up (even alone, although most organizations have policies against this) and for those times I say, be known for your unpredictability! Show up to your babysitter’s an hour early, or randomly drop in on church meetings.
In the example of the man at my church, it could have been totally innocent, but it could have been that the man was actually trying to gain the trust of my son. Maintaining this heightened sense of awareness certainly could cause anxiety in any sane mother . . . but it also causes a state of peace in knowing I’m doing literally everything I can to protect my kiddos.
Great article! I really like what was said about teaching children it’s okay to set boundaries for their body, even with relatives. Relatives may need education about respecting those boundaries as well. I was rubbing my nephew’s back when he wasn’t feeling well to comfort him and he asked me to stop. On one hand, I was sad because I wanted to help him feel better. On the other hand, I was really proud of him and grateful my sister had taught him to communicate his boundary. Of course, I immediately stopped rubbing his back but I am confident that even if I hadn’t, he would have been more vocal or even moved to another seat – behaviors and skills that can help to keep him safe. It’s better to offend grandma or uncle as it is more important kids learn that they can set boundaries loudly and often, if needed.
Such a great point. It’s hard for parents sometimes because they too don’t want to offend someone, but in the moment is sometimes when that teaching needs to happen.
I can certainly see implementing these ideas if there is something to be concerned about, say a previous red flag. However, on so many levels this is purely paranoia. Paranoia on the part of the parent and not only that, but you are creating paranoia in your child. If they are constantly worried about whether a hug or a piece of candy means that person is out to hurt them, they will never be able to have a healthy relationship or interact with friends and more importantly, family. You also can’t go around making assumptions that everyone who interacts with your child by giving a hug or a gift or playful interaction is trying to groom them or even more, that they are a child predator. That’s how rumors begin and that’s how reputations are tarnished and for what? Because your “spidey sense” as you said in the article alerted you that a man who knows your family wanted to be kind and give your child candy? Have you ever thought about how others would begin to perceive that man should anyone be alerted that you “thought” he was grooming? You could destroy a man’s entire life because of your paranoia. I remember very well several elderly people, men and women, in my church were always very loving and gave candy to us all the time. This was not grooming and they were not child predators. Instead they were simply showing kindness and love. I do understand watching out for your kids but this is taking it to an extreme and living in paranoia. I’ve taught my child to be wary and cautious but I’ve also taught her to be kind to people and interact with her family without being scared that they are going to hurt her. This is why we are producing a generation of kids who are disrespectful to their elders and who live in the “it’s all about me” mentality. This is walking on a dangerous line that in the end will cause more problems than it will help. 99.9 percent of the time these people interacting with your child are engaging in innocent acts and grooming and preying are not even on the radar. But yet, your paranoia has forever changed the way you see that person (who engaged in a completely innorcent act). Why can’t we teach our kids to see the good in people with a cautious eye rather than teaching them to live a life of fear that someone is going to hurt them? And even more, lead by example – we should see the good in people and not assume that every innocent act is an indication of grooming or more that their innocent act makes them a predator. Just my two cents.
I agree. My dad, the sweetest, kindest man I know, always has peppermints in his pockets (for as long as i can remember and I’m 32) and loves kids and handing them out when given the chance. I’m horrified to think that people might think him some kind of child predator because he knows that children like treats and loves to make them smile. I can also remember many a strawberry and butterscotch candies doled out from the bottoms of various paw paws and MeeMaw’s pockets and purses. I get that we live in a scary world and we all want to keep our kids safe. But sometimes all the safety can make us miss out on human connection and the experience of a life well lived. I will teach my child that his body is his own and he decides who is alllwed to touch him and that it’s NEVER ok for someone who isn’t mommy or daddy or his doctor to touch his private parts and all that stuff. I hope to raise up a boy with many healthy relationships with all kinds of people so that he is aware when something doesn’t feel right. I would never want to project my adult fears and paranoias onto my kid.
I absolutely agree with you that we can create unnecessary paranoia for us and our children. However I don’t believe that what the article is suggesting does that. Teaching your child that they have power and control over their own bodies may keep them safe in many situations and on many levels. And they do (or at least should). I think you can teach your child to accept the candy with respect and gratefulness and still have them know they can say no when they feel uncomfortable. And her son told her about the candy. That relationship alone is important. You’re right, we shouldn’t discuss anyone’s actions with anyone unless something has happened that is truly concerning. But I’m grateful when I feel my own spidey sense tingle and know to at least be on alert in my own mind. That doesn’t hurt anyone. And it may protect someone.
Sadly, waiting for a prior red flag might mean you’re too late to catch it before it happens. I stand pretty firm on the concept of food not being offered to kids without parents prior approval for a variety of reasons, however. We just don’t know the kid’s diet, or allergies. It’s just common sense to exercise caution as a giver.
You make the assumption that I pass this anxiety to my kids. My kids have no idea that I monitor these things or that I’m aware of people who make contact with them. I teach them their body is their own, I teach them to be kind to those around them, but I teach them to not fear offending people if someone has crossed the line. If someone reaches out for a hug and they don’t want to, they can say no without thinking “Am I hurting their feelings?”
However, I can certainly understand how this level of heightened awareness is enough to cause anxiety and if that doesn’t work for you, that’s okay. We all make our choices based on our own assessment of risk. After years of working as a child abuse investigator and having worked with parents who missed these signs, I accept the anxiety knowing I am doing all I can and can live without regrets.
You are right that the majority of people engaging in these visibly innocent acts do so without intention of harm… but I would rather maintain this sense of awareness for the .1% of the time they aren’t.