I want to address a topic that may still be a gray zone in many people’s minds.
I hope that at this point, we all know what molestation is and what immense, long-lasting and soul-crushing effects it can have. We tend to associate molestation with older perpetrators and people with some sort of emotional power over their little victims, and although that is the most common and dangerous form of molestation, what about the “innocent games” between children of the same age? Where is the line between safe play and the age appropriate sexual exploration that every child goes through as he or she develops and grows vs. the crossover into sexual perversion that will leave lasting damage on the souls of the children involved? I think many parents grapple with this, and many more just push it out of their minds and hope for the best. We live in a day and age where we know that any form of sexual abuse, however “mild’ we may think it actually is (if there even is such a thing as mild), will leave a ripple effect in the hearts and souls of our sensitive children. It may even leave lasting—and at times, severe—damage if we do not provide the right environment for their healing, or better yet, prevent this from ever happening in this first place.
So what is inappropriate sexual behavior for a child?
I recommend that everyone educate themselves and read up on what is appropriate sexual exploration for each age. For example, a 4-year-old child may freely reach into his pants in public and not understand why we are upset with his behavior, while a 12-year-old should know societal norms, and if he behaves in the same manner as the 4-year-old, that’s obviously not normal. A 6-year-old may be interested in watching a sibling naked and not understand privacy boundaries, but a 13-year-old should by no means seek out his sibling’s or friend’s nudity.
Please don’t assume that a child will somehow miraculously know appropriate behavior—teach him and talk about what your expectations are. Do not leave these topics up to teachers in school; your child is your primary responsibility, so please teach him!
When is behavior never appropriate at any age?
If there is an obsession associated with it. For example, you constantly notice that your 6-year-old is spying near his sister’s room, or that your 13-year-old always volunteers to bathe his baby sister. If the behavior is repetitive enough for you to notice, even with your busy schedule, then it at least warrants a thought and a check. And obviously, if the teacher at the school notices and tells you something is amiss, it is wise to take this very seriously and watch for red flags.
If you have clearly, but kindly—and not judgmentally or angrily—explained to your child the proper norms a number of times, and he is still acting in a manner that is not considered age-appropriate, this would also be a cause for concern and need a closer look.
If the behavior you see displays mature knowledge which you haven’t taught your child, it’s definitely a cause for concern. Where is the child seeing/learning this behavior from? Time to gently try to find out where your child is getting this information.
I think that most importantly, a parent must keep an open mind. If your child feels that he is being judged, and all he hears is how “naughty”, “bad” and “mischievous” he is, he will not come to you when he feels threatened or concerned that his friend or sibling touched him in an inappropriate fashion or looked at him in a weird way.
I have a good friend who is a child psychologist, and she always says that sexually inappropriate behavior doesn’t begin with inappropriate touch; it begins with a child feeling unsafe in the company of another child or adult. Teach your child that there are “tricky” people in this world of ours, and that they could even be friends or close family members. Don’t bring your own emotions into this—just calmly say that if he ever feels unsafe, or if anyone ever tells him to keep a secret from Mommy, it is a red flag, and he should run to tell you. Promise wholeheartedly that no matter who the person making him feel unsafe is, you will always be there for him, believing him and protecting him.
Once you make this promise, you have to honor it, so if a child comes to you, listen and pay attention to his words. Don’t say: “Are you sure you really feel unsafe?” or “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” or “How could that be? It’s your brother/sister/uncle/grandfather…” or “How could you let this happen to you?” Once your child comes to you, it is your G-d-given duty to believe him. It doesn’t matter if the other child involved tries to tell you that “it was a game” or that “he agreed to it” or whatever other nonsense. If your child comes to you for protection and seeking your support, then you must believe him and honor and validate his feelings. It is your right, responsibility and holy duty, as his soul has chosen you as his parent. Don’t fail him in this, please! Again, it’s important to put your own feelings aside at this time…
Recently, concerns have arisen that perhaps there is more molestation happening in the Orthodox community than in the non-religious community. I certainly hope that’s not true, but what is true is that there has increasingly been more reporting within the religious community lately than there has been in the past, and I think that’s a great thing. It’s a sign that we are coming to terms with our humanity; that we are just like everyone else in regard to this problem, and we mustn’t hide from it, but face these issues head-on, united in one goal—the protection of our children’s souls. No endeavor can be greater than protecting and safeguarding our precious children.
There are many excellent resources on this subject, and I encourage you to take the time to read some articles or books about normal sexual development in children so you will be much better equipped to deal with any abnormal situations that may come up. Please buy a book for your household (and there are many to choose from) where body safety and when to call Mommy for help is explained in simple terms for children. Read it together with your kids often; don’t be ashamed, because your shame and false sense of tzniut when it comes to discussing these things is the best weapon in a molester’s hand. Please, please, please teach your child the right names for his private body parts. It will help him feel empowered about his body. If a child has no idea what things are called “down there”, you are handing over another tool that the molester can use to fool and manipulate him. Many kids may be ashamed and fearful when they are feeling unsafe in someone’s company, and they might be reluctant to talk about it. Recognize that this is a normal response, and teach them that if they feel shame or discomfort after an interaction with a particular person, they should tell you.
Above all else, take time, as often as possible, to check in with each of your kids one-on-one. It may take 5 minutes or 2 hours, but find the time to check in with them and to tell them how much you love and are there for them, come what may. You might never know when he needs to hear these exact words from you.
May we all be the best parents we can, and may HKB”H give us the strength to face our own weaknesses and fears to be there for our children when they need us the most. May we be worthy of the trust our beautiful children place in us.
*Note to the reader: To keep a consistent flow in the article, we have used the pronoun “he” to refer to any child mentioned. Obviously, this can all also be applied to girls.