A commenter once took issue with a post I wrote about parents’ responsibility to arm their children against the threat of child abuse by teaching children about their dignity as human beings, and in particular the dignity of the human body. This person took issue with the idea that such concepts can provide any protection against predators. I’d like to address that as a starting point today.
Realistically, there is no foolproof way to protect our children from any of the dangers they may face. But to me it seems self-evident that whatever defenses we can arm them with are wise investments. I do believe that young women and men who truly understand their value and dignity as human beings are more likely to be capable of protest when they are pressured, either by peers or by authority figures, to do things that violate that dignity. It’s no guarantee, but it’s another tool in the arsenal.
I used to believe young children should be shielded from all references to sexuality, because it would sully their innocence. But this implies that sexuality is a) not innocent, and b) something separate from personhood, when the truth is that the two are braided together so tightly that separating them leads to dysfunction.
I am now convinced that lessons about sexuality cannot be imparted in a single conversation upon the onset of puberty, but must, MUST be introduced a bit at a time. You don’t dump Pi r squared on a student without laying the foundations first; they’ll never, ever understand it. They might be able to plug in numbers to a formula, but they won’t understand. The same is true of sexuality. A child’s psyche isn’t prepared to deal with so much earthy, bodily frankness if it’s never been introduced before.
So in our family we start in early childhood by laying foundations.
1. The key concept is this: the body is holy because it is the dwelling place of God. God lives in the soul, and the soul is housed in the body. Our bodies were given to us in order to make the world a better place. A place that looks more like what God’s vision for it.
2. Because of this, we take care of our bodies. We don’t play with them as if they’re toys, and certain parts of us are not meant to be touched by anyone other than a parent or perhaps a doctor in an examination, and beyond a certain age, not even by a parent. We care for our bodies by keeping them clean, well-nourished (healthy eating and exercise are part of this lesson) and well rested.
3. We call body parts by their proper names. Euphemisms and slang imply that there’s something that needs to be hidden because it’s bad to talk about. The kids are comfortable with words like breast and penis and labia and scrotum. (More comfortable than we are, to be honest.)
Once these foundational concepts are worked into life, it’s not such a stretch to talk about where babies come from. God puts the baby in the mommy’s tummy, but you know the child is going to ask how. It would be easy to punt and say something lame and evasive, but I think that’s shortsighted. Kids need to understand that something holy and miraculous happens in the sexual act, and that they have a part to play–that their choices and their dignity are relevant.
So I tell the kids that mommies and daddies have a special hug they give each other, and sometimes when they do, God takes something from the mommy and something from the daddy and makes it into a baby that grows inside the mommy.
Alex has probed further, and I have had to say, “You don’t need to know that yet.” I think of Corrie Ten Boom’s story about the suitcase a lot.
Now, when we need to address abuse by authority figures or even something Alex sees in the movies that doesn’t add up, we aren’t constructing elaborate evasions in a misguided attempt to preserve his innocence. This weekend we were watching Superman Returns and Alex, puzzled by the complicated relationship between Lois, Superman and Richard, and how that boy could be Superman’s kid, asked, “So…are they married?”
“Alex,” I said, “the thing you have to understand is that the special hug is meant to be given by people who are married to each other, because that special hug makes babies, and every baby has a right to grow up in a family with a mom and a dad who are married to each other. But the hug can be done by people who aren’t married. That’s not how it’s supposed to be, but sometimes people do.”
What I’m trying to get at is that the issues of sexuality are all tied together. You can’t just address child abuse in a vacuum. Because then, yes, it does destroy a child’s innocence. But if you give them a vision of their own dignity as human beings, that facilitates those other, more difficult, conversations. It gives them one more ring of defense in case, God forbid, they do face a situation you can’t protect them from. And in the long run, it should help them live an integrated, holistic life, too. This is my theory. I’m the first to admit it’s unproven, but it’s in the testing phase, and so far the indications look good.
Teaching children about holistic sexuality is more than an unproven theory. You are doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing. The dualism between person and body is what has led to so much sexual dysfunction in our society. Dualism reigns in our culture: “It’s not really me, it’s just my body,” (which is an actual quote that someone once said to me), or “What difference does it make if a person is a man or a woman?” These are dualistic statements that lead to sexual dysfunction and gender identity problems, becaues the body is seen as “meat”. To think of us as spiritual beings trapped in a body directly violates our belief as Catholic Christians. We are not spiritual beings in a body. Our body is as much a part of who we are as our soul. We do not believe in the pre-existence of the soul. The soul came to be when the body was created. In Genesis, Man was not a living creature until God breathed his Spirit into Man. Woman came alive from the rib of Man, which is the seat of that breath. When we die, our soul separated from our body, which was not the will of God, but rather a curse of our original sin. This is also why we believe in the resurrection of the body. To teach that our body is an essential, dignified, sacred part of ourselves is hugely important. Kudos, Kate. I’m following these posts closely.
I just wanted to leave a comment to let you know I am enjoying reading these posts. I can never get what I want to say on this topic into a coherent post, so I’m glad you’re able to do it!
The holistic view of body and soul is a familiar philosophy to your regular readers, and one I agree with you on in principle, if not in every particular of its application. Empowering children to respect their bodies may, as you say, lead them to demand that other respect their bodies, which may, as you say, help them tell someone once abuse has already happened. I’m not so confident they would recognize threat ahead of time to prevent it, dignity of the body or no.
So I think the question on my mind is, what does one do to prevent it in the first place? It is not enough in my mind to just say “predators will find a way” and leave it at that. To paraphrase Dumbledore, it may not be possible to ever stop it entirely, but if you prevent it once, and then prevent it again, and then someone else prevents it another time, why, it may happen rarely if at all.
Is the training you mentioned in previous posts enough? Are the strictures in place enough? When it happens anyway, is it because somehow those procedures fell through, or is it something else? I am as interested in what the blogosphere has to say as much as anything.
And yes, abuse happens in all aspects of world, wherever the weak are mixed with the strong or cunning, not just in the Church. But if the Church is indeed supposed to be a vehicle for God’s word and presence on Earth, isn’t it doubly bad when it happens in the Church? If we the Church are supposed to shine God’s light in the darkness, to strive to be the City on the Hill, isn’t it entirely appropriate that more should be demanded to prevent something that is not only unethical and immoral by secular standards, but also admittedly un-God like, unholy, and unChristian? As parents and as Catholic Christians, shouldn’t we demand that?
I’m not sure the Dumbledore quote works that well in this instance because he was talking about preventing one man from returning, when everyone knew said man’s identity and that said man wanted to return and was trying to return, while the abuse in the Church issue is a matter of protecting millions of individuals from a scattered few who haven’t been identified among thousands upon thousands of good men in the clergy. Assuming that we’re talking about those who might still be hidden in our midst, that is, as opposed to the ones who have been retired or convicted or dealt with in another way.
I think the default position when this conversation comes up is that enough hasn’t been done to protect the kids, but I’m always puzzled as to what more CAN be done. The procedures are in place, pretty much universally as far as I know. The bishops are either taking care of it or they’re being publicly excoriated (rightfully so) for not taking care of it. The Pope has identified this as a priority.
Are our attitudes of resistance to the training a problem? Yeah, I suppose that is a reasonable statement. So maybe that’s something we as laity can work on. But if there are other things we can or should be doing, I”m not sure what they are. Thus I focus on what I *can* impact, i.e. the dysfunctional attitude toward sexuality that allowed it to happen in the first place.
Incidentally, lest that reply come across as complacent, I certainly don’t intend it that way. Through the years as the news reports blanketed the airwaves and dioceses responded, I’ve puzzled over what we as laity can do to impact this–advocate for reform, yes, but the reform is being implemented as far as I can tell. So as I puzzle and puzzle and puzzle (i.e., I am NOT complacent!), I have come to the conclusion that a focus on an integrated personal sexuality is our best hope for the future. It seems like I’m avoiding the primary subject but I’m not.
Education, education, education. What struck me when the abuse scandal broke in 2000, was the ignorance of people regarding this subject and the effects on the children. So many people saying that the victims just wanted money. Or why didn’t they tell someone in the first place. Don’t get me started.
We need to educate all, including the children. Especially the children. So they know they can tell someone. And so friends of victims know they can tell someone.
And this is not just a sexual issue. It is much more complicated than that. As in rape, there are other causes/issues, – need for power, etc. As for the victims, it is more than a sexual issue as well. Much more.
Education, education and education.
I think the Church needs to be the leader in the education and prevention of child sexual abuse – in all parts of society.
I have always felt that the Church should be a safe place. A place where children can go and tell someone. A place where children can go and seek help, protection, and love.
I think the pope is thinking on those lines as well. I will try to find link to that article I read and will come back with it.
Kate, you have expressed so clearly and simply the profound truths that many are now able to understand and put into practice. May the Lord continue to bless you and work through you.
I wanted to let you know that I think your article was a good one. I tried to teach my children the same. Certainly sex education of our children, the teaching of the dignity of the human body, etc, is important. But I still have to say that this issue goes so much deeper than this. And is way more complicated. For example, my father started abusing me when I was about 2 or 3. I never received sex education until I was much older than that and I did not relate it to what was being done to me.
Maybe I need to write a few posts on this myself. I have in the past but not in any great depth, I don’t think.
Thanks for doing this. 🙂
Colleen, I wondered what your history was, but I didn’t want to pry in public. It is truly unfathomable to me how a parent could hurt a child in that way, and even more at that age. You’re right, that’s far too young for any of these lessons to have been helpful. Perhaps he could have been redirected if he’d had the lessons about human dignity. And perhaps not. I appreciated your comments above, concerning education. I think we tend to find the whole idea so repugnant and unfathomable that we don’t want to entertain the ugliness.
Thank you! I sent you an email.
I love this! It’s great that you are giving the real names for body parts, demystifying them so that your kids won’t see them as “dirty.” I never really had sex ed, good or bad, so I do feel strongly that it should be taught. I think that the way you’re doing it is good, gradually, naturally, as a part of life. It reminds me of Elizabeth Elliot talking to her adult daughter about her “sex ed” – how Valerie grew up around naked Peruvians in the jungle and helped deliver a baby at a young age. That’s an unusual circumstance, but it says a great deal that when Valerie started her period she saw it as a great step to becoming a woman, not a frightening event.
Or a gross one, as I saw it.
Beautifully said, Kathleen. We, too, use the actual names for the body parts and have tried to stress the holiness of the body and caring for the body.
Our biggest issue is dealing with several people close to us having children out of wedlock. My brother alone has four children with three different women. I’ve had to have several conversations with Andrew about this.
That’s a rough topic. We don’t have that situation but divorce/stepfamilies is a toughie too.