By Rabbi Raffi Bilek
The Talmud teaches us that a man is obligated to teach his son Torah, find him a bride, teach him a trade, and according to some even to teach him how to swim (Kiddushin 29a). In short, parents are required to give their children the tools needed to lead successful lives. We cannot raise our children without teaching them what they need to know to support themselves, nor can we rear them without offering spiritual guidance and instilling them with values and morals.
We live in a different era today. Yetthe Sages’ words arefar from irrelevant; indeed, we must even go beyond their instructions. Don’t we teach our children to stay away from drugs? Not to get in a car with someone who’s been drinking? Not to text and drive?Our children need to hear these lessons from us in order to be safe in today’s world. Today there is another subject that needs to be broached with equal gravity.
Research tells us that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 7 boys will be sexually abused by the time they are 18 years old. The problem is epidemic. While no studies have been conducted on the Jewish community, experts in the field assert that the rates are no less among our own people, regardless of affiliation, race, or socioeconomic status. There are important steps we can and must take to protect our children from sexual abuse. Here are some of the basics.
1. Let your children know that they can talk to you about anything.
This is the number one lesson that underlies the rest. The truth is that we cannot be around our children 24/7, and we cannot protect them from everything and everyone. Yet children who know that they can discuss anything at all with their parents have an enormous advantage, because in the case, G-d forbid, that they are touched inappropriately, they know they have somewhere to turn for safety. They know that they do not have to keep the abuse a secret. Children who do not have that security are likely to suffer abuse for longer in silence and secrecy – for months and even years. One study found that the traumatic impact of sexual abuse was related to the length of time it was kept secret more than to any other factor.
Children are afraid of losing their parents’ love; they must be assured that this is impossible. They must also be assured that disclosing sensitive information will not cause you to become angry, uncomfortable, or hysterical. Children do not want to cause pain to their parents and will usually clam up if they sense that will be the result. This means that not only do you have to inform them, in advance, that this won’t happen, but you have to act on it as well – so when Johnny comes home one day and tells you he was kicked out of class, or beat someone up, or totaled the car – you must react appropriately to the situation without losing your temper, and you must convey to him at the same time that you love him nonetheless.
2. Talk to your children about sex and their bodies.
This process begins as early as 2 or 3 years old, when you talk to your toddlers about their bodies. We are happy to talk to our kids about their fingers and toes; how often do we name their private parts for them? From an early age they need to be given words for these body parts. Children who do not have those words do not even have a way of expressing that something has happened to them if it ever does. Some experts allow for the use of cutesy names for private parts; I believe that while they can be used most of the time, children must also be taught the proper names for their private parts at some point, and these words should be used in the home from time to time. There are two reasons for this: one is because if they are using your family’s nicknames for their private parts, they may not be able to communicate to anyone else (such as a teacher or camp counselor) that someone else has touched them there.The second and more important reason is that they will ultimately find out the real names for these parts anyway; and if it is not from their parents, they will come to understand that “we don’t talk about these things with mom and dad.” That is the very worst message you can send them.
As children age, you can explain to them that certain parts (those that are covered by their bathing suit) are private, meaning that nobody else should be looking at or touching them, and they should not look at or touch anyone else’s. Explain also the difference between “good touch,” “bad touch” and “confusing touch.” Good touches make us feel good, like hugs and handshakes. Bad touches make us feel sad or scared, like pushes and punches. Confusing touches make us feel confused or embarrassed. Bad touches and confusing touches should both be shared with you right away.
Eventually, in their pre-teen/early teen years, you will teach your childrenabout sex and intimacy more directly. There are many helpful books on the market, including Jewish ones, to help you conduct these conversations.
3. Make clear to your children that their body belongs to them.
When I have presented this material to children in Jewish day schools and I ask who their bodies belong to, inevitably some of them respond with “Hashem!” That is true, I tell them, but He gave it to YOU to take care of – so your body belongs to you!Children must know that they are in control of their bodies and their personal space. You should teach them that they have the right to say no to anyone who wants to touch or get too close to them.
This is more difficult than you might originally think, because moments after you have this discussion with them, Aunt Gertrude is going to stop by for asurprise visit and want to kiss your cute little kiddies. Do your children want to be kissed? Do they want to kiss Aunt Gertrude? Theymust be allowed to decide for themselves, and you should support them. Aunt Gertrude may be offended, but she will get over it (especially if you explain to her the reason for your position). Your children should choose whether they will hug Grandpa or not. Your children should choose whether they will hug you or not. Similarly, if you are having a good time of tickling them (which is something I heartily endorse), if one of them shouts “Stop!” – even if s/he laughing – it is imperative that you stop immediately and say, “I am stopping because you said to stop.” Children who learn that they are allowed to determine who touches them and when are in a much better position to act on that knowledge if, G-d forbid, someone should try to touch them in more inappropriate ways.
Much ink has been spilled on child sexual abuse prevention, and the number of Jewish books on the subject is growing. I encourage you to begin the process now, however old your children are, of teaching them what they need to know to stay safe from sexual abuse. Certainly this is no less important to the long-term success of our children than teaching them a trade.
Rabbi Raffi Bilek, LSW maintains a private counseling practice online at www.frumcounselor.com and sees clients across the globe. He is also a speaker on issues related to domestic violence and sexual abuse in the Jewish community.