The Kahlil Gibran poem “On Children” hangs in my office:
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
They come through you but not from you;
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
It inspired me as a younger mom to give my children appropriate freedom. But poetry meets harsh reality when balancing your child’s autonomy with personal safety. We can’t be with our children every moment of the day, but statistics make many of us want to snap back that bow and keep our little arrows close.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated one in 10 children will experience contact sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. When the definition of sexual abuse is expanded to include non-contact sexual abuse, the U.S. Department of Justice cites figures of one in four girls and one in six boys who are sexually abused. More than 90 percent of survivors of child sexual abuse know their abuser.
Missy Gryder of Phoenix knows these numbers well, and for more than 10 years has devoted her energies to teaching children about personal safety.
“I believe our generation of moms grew up thinking it was just ‘stranger danger,’” says Gryder, a former elementary teacher with a doctorate in education. “But, the majority of the time it’s with somebody who knows the kid and has access to the kid.”
Gryder is also concerned about the growing incidences of older-child-to-younger-child abuse. So what can be done, besides packing up our arrows in our quiver and holding them close?
“An informed child is a better-protected child,” says Gryder, who created The Body Safety Box in 2000. “So, if we can inform our children in a really age-appropriate, kid-friendly way, the better equipped and the safer our children will be.”
Gryder’s Body Safety Box program includes a series of lessons that are designed to be active and engaging. There are two versions of the program — one for ages 5 to 8 and one for ages 9 to 12. Gryder has personally presented the program to more than 1,500 students in schools, but the program can be facilitated by anyone.
“We have school counselors, teachers, and even school resource officers who teach the lessons,” says Gryder. In addition, parents can purchase The Body Safety Box online ($39.99) for use with their own children. “It can be used anywhere by anyone, because all that is needed to facilitate the program is included in the box.”
Here are some of The Body Safety Box elements that help children learn about personal safety:
Social and emotional learning
At the core of personal safety is believing you are worthy enough to warrant being safe and well. Accordingly, the first two lessons in The Body Safety Box are social and emotional lessons. When Gryder works in classrooms, she doesn’t want to dive into sensitive topics when the children are just getting to know her. “So, the initial lessons are all about kids learning they are special and helping them to develop their sense of worth and value,” she explains.
Another aspect of the beginning lessons is developing an emotional vocabulary. “We help kids learn some feelings words, and they learn that everybody feels all kinds of feelings and all of these feelings are normal,” says Gryder.
Body safety rules
School-age children tend to be rule-driven when making decisions. It makes sense, then, that Gryder’s program includes a set of body safety rules. “In the third lesson, children learn their first body safety rule, which involves physical abuse prevention: No one can hurt my body,” says Gryder. “We introduce sexual abuse prevention in Lesson 4 with the safety rule: No one can touch my private parts.”
Gryder stresses the importance of using age appropriate, kid-friendly language.
“Of course every Arizona kid knows about their swimsuit,” says Gryder, “so we use language that no one can touch the parts of your body that are covered by your swimsuit.”
For this lesson, the children make artwork that corresponds to their gender. “It was really important for me to create something that I would feel comfortable teaching a young child that wasn’t using the word ‘sex,’” Gryder adds. “I wouldn’t want a kindergartner to hear that word for the first time in a negative context.
Refusal and telling skills
In later Body Safety Box lessons, children learn all-important “refusal” and “telling” skills. “At this point, kids learn that they can say ‘stop’ in a big voice, they can get away, and they can keep telling adults,” says Gryder.
Gryder says fewer than 10 percent of kids who experience sexual abuse tell. Oftentimes when a child does tell, that one adult doesn’t do anything. “So if a kid goes to ask for help and the help isn’t given, you can imagine that completely shuts the kid down, often until adulthood.”
When Gryder is in classrooms, she is quite frank about the fact that sometimes adults don’t know how to help. She teaches children to keep telling other adults until help is provided. She goes as far as teaching children to tell adults who are mandatory reporters, without using that term.
“We list them out: parents and adults who care for them, [including] teachers, school nurses, principals, doctors and police officers,” she explains. Gryder encourages children to memorize all the adults on this list that they can go to for help
“It’s not your fault”
Anyone who has seen the ending of the movie “Good Will Hunting” knows the power of the words “it’s not your fault” for survivors of abuse. In The Body Safety Box’s final lesson, these words are driven home.
“Somehow they think it’s their fault,” says Gryder. The shame gets wrongly transferred from the abuser to the child. Sometimes the perpetrator threatens the child or the child’s family if the child tells.
“I share with the children that sometimes the person who is breaking a body safety rule will tell you that you can’t tell. But, really, you can tell; they’re not telling you the truth.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents talk with children about abuse prevention as early as age 3. “The median age of childhood sexual abuse is age 9,” Gryder says. “So if we are waiting until our children are tweens to have the talk, that’s absolutely too late.”
And, Gryder feels strongly that the talk is for all parents to have.
“If you ask around, you will find that sexual abuse has happened to people in your close circle. It’s not just a poverty problem; it’s an everywhere problem. It’s not just for the at-risk child; it is for every child.”