I think most parents gauge their parental skills on how “good” their children are and likewise, we are rigorously judged by others, according to how well our children behave. Parents of well-behaved children are universally praised and admired and much of what we read and learn about parenting guides us on how to raise “good” boys and girls. This unfortunately, is the very quality that makes our children so vulnerable to sexual abuse.
I feel in order to protect our children from sexual abuse, we need to make a shift in our perspective on what makes a good parent and what society perceives as a “good” child. Part of that shift needs to begin with the recognition that, in fact, being a good parent is actually about YOU and how you choose to respond to your child in the moment – how you choose to stand in your own power, how you choose to meet difficult challenges, how you choose to respond to joyful moments and what’s actually going on inside of you.
We live in a culture where “good boys and girls” are something most parents strive for. The majority of adults who converse with our children make comments such as “Have you been a good girl”, or “You be good for mummy won’t you”. This kind of thinking inculcates the perception that children are NOT good and for the children, they often receive the message loud and clear that their “goodness” is to be earned.
Jean Leidoff noted in The Continuum Concept that, “The social behaviour of a child develops among expected influences and examples set him by his society. Innate drives also impel him to do what he perceives is expected of him by his fellow humans; the fellow humans let him know what they expect, according to the culture. Learning is a process of fulfilling expectations for certain kinds of information”. 1
When we are talking about children, “good” equals obedient and let’s face it, obedient makes our lives easier. On the flip side, the child who has been raised with liberty and an inherent trust in their innate goodness, can and often will say no and will often challenge us on emotional levels we are not yet ready to face. I think that parenting along such lines in our culture can be more challenging, but the rewards for ourselves, for our children and for humanity as a whole are boundless.
A “good child”, bound by rules and prohibitions about what his parents want him not to do and who is punished if he fails to meet these expectations, is being denied the opportunity to nurture his own flexibility, his sense of power and his personal resourcefulness. A child taught to follow the rules instead of being taught to respond intuitively and flexibly to real-life, real-time information will be at a distinct disadvantage if confronted by the resourceful and dangerous paedophile or molester.
Socialisation and sexual abuse
We encourage the child to be a good boy/girl and to say hello to the man in the shop (a stranger), to respect the priest, to do what the scout leader tells you, to obey/respect your teachers, to give grandpa a kiss etc., etc., etc. When raising our children to survive in this perilous world, these are certainly NOT the rules that will keep them safe.
The child predator comes from all social classes, races and vocations and will find ways to legitimise his contact with your children. So it may well be Uncle George, grandpa, the man in the local shop, the scout leader, the bus driver, the priest, the policeman, the sports coach or even the teacher, who preys upon your child.
Having children with good manners is something highly regarded in our culture and something many parents are strict about. They constantly remind their children to “Say thankyou”, “Say please”, “Address adults as Mr or Mrs”, “Say excuse me”, “Say sorry”, “Be polite”, “Be nice”, etc. But what we do not usually tell our children is that impoliteness is relative. For instance, we need to balance social expectations with the advice that it is okay to tell an adult to “Get away”, “Leave me alone”, “No”, “I will not do what you want” or to defy an adult by screaming at the top of their lungs when told not to scream in certain circumstances. If they feel threatened, frightened, endangered or simply uncomfortable, they must know it is acceptable not to be compliant and that you will support them if they are rude or defiant towards an adult.
Another important lesson for them to learn is that “niceness” does not equal “goodness”. A child needs to have an inherent sense that “they are good”, and that there are times when they may need to act in a way that is “not nice” and that you will fully support their actions. This is especially important for us to instil in our girls as there is much more social pressure on girls to be nice and good. Girls tend to be pressured early in life to be responsible, pleasant, polite and socially adept, while boys are generally freer to be rebellious, loud and outrageous.
A so-called “good child” is vulnerable to the manipulative and devious workings of the molester who will often abuse their role as an authority figure. A resilient and resourceful child, who has been raised with love, respect and given healthy boundaries but is not rule-bound, will have the intestinal fortitude and savvy awareness required to outsmart the approaches of a child predator.
When children feel valued and respected, they are more likely to tell someone they trust if they are worried or have suffered abuse. Furthermore, when they are empowered, they are more likely to be assertive and self-confident and less likely to be targeted by potential abusers.
So, be mindful of the things you do and say to your children in your efforts to make them socially adept. Respect their abilities to make assessments of people and situations and support them if they feel the need to defy an adult – any adult — even if it’s as simple as feeling uncomfortable giving Aunty June or Grandpa a kiss or a hug.
Until children are free to express their unedited and un-manipulated feelings and emotions, and until due respect is given to their inner world, we will have a tough time protecting them from the pedophile.
It is essential that a child is taught that “respect” is a quality that should be earned. They should know that it is not a god-given right. I have taught my children right from the start that they should respect a person because of their admirable qualities and actions, not simply because they are an adult or someone considered important, such as a teacher or a police officer. That is not to say that they should not be appropriately respectful, but blind respect and unwavering obedience are definitely not qualities any child should have to adhere to.
It is a simple choice. You can choose to raise an obedient “good child”, who is more socially acceptable and who will not question or disobey instructions from adults; one who conforms with societal expectations and conditions, which thereby leaves him/her vulnerable to the pedophile. Or you can choose to raise life-smart, independently-thinking, self-regulated and self-reliant children, who will be more resilient, safe and happy.
You may have to buck the system with regards to current social and cultural expectations and you will have to model those things yourself – by being life-smart and a strong independent thinker, who is self-regulated and self-reliant. Maybe a more challenging option but one that I know I would choose!
1. Leidoff, J. (1986) p. 39. The Continuum Concept Penguin Books, London, UK