In the trenches of parenting, there aren’t always right answers — but there are strategies & wisdom tested by the day-to-day tangle of family life. For January, during National Human Trafficking Prevention Month, Love146 shared new resources for Parents & Caregivers to keep children safe. Then we asked: What specifically works for you? How do you raise children to be safer in our world? We received several beautiful responses, including the following letter. After it, you’ll find some more tips and insights from fellow Love146 supporters who are parents.
FROM ONE MOTHER & LOVE146 MONTHLY DONOR:
I am a parent of three kids. I’m a little nervous to share what I’ve learned, because as a parent of white kids in a well-to-do neighborhood, I can assume some safety that others cannot. That said, there was a child predator at my daughter’s school in the aftercare program, so that may be a false sense of security.
Here are the best things I’ve learned:
1) To get your kids to talk to you, talk about their interests. Every day. And sincerely. We learned this from an officer who spoke at my kids’ school. He said, “If you want them to be able to come to you about the big things, you have to build a foundation of every day talking about the little things.” That has been extremely true for us, though it’s often REALLY HARD — because the stuff that my 12-year-old finds interesting is soooo borrrring to a parent. And it’s important to pay attention, ask questions, and remember what they said for next time, so you can re-engage with stuff like “oh, right, Reed — he was the kid you said was doing the chemistry project with you, right?” Those indicators that you paid attention go a really long way.
When, for instance, I take the time to let a kid ramble (it seems like rambling to me, but of course, not to them) for 45 minutes about the level that they’re trying to get to in the latest video game, what often happens is that after they’ve said all they want to say about that, they will say something wildly important. They’ll tell me about a test they’re worried about, or something that happened at school — the things I really want to know, but that they wouldn’t tell me if I asked straight up with no preamble. I think they need to feel safe before they can talk. And I think that comes from talking about trivial things first. That’s not too unlike how it is with adults, really.
2) Find consistent time to talk to each kid separately. When my kids were little, I spent a good 20 minutes in each of their rooms at bed time. I don’t know why, but for my kids that was inevitably when they’d ask me something really heavy. It was the end of the day and I was tired, but those were often the only moments my kids were undistracted and the only time, with two siblings, that they got one-on-one time with their parent.
For a little while, we’d even let each kid play hooky once a month so they could have solo parent time. When that got hard because of workloads and school grades (harder to do with a 7th grader than a 1st grader), we started looking for times to take just one kid on an errand run, or to the grocery store, etc. We even sometimes just walked around the neighborhood at the end of the night. It got harder to make the times consistent, but nearly every time that I’ve managed to get quiet, uninterrupted one-on-one time with my kids that lasts more than 10 minutes, I learn something important from them. We seem to do particularly well driving around in the car — maybe because we aren’t looking right at each other, so it can be easier to speak up while looking away. I’ve taken my kids on rambling night drives to nowhere when they need to talk, all bundled up in a blanket, and we’ve had some of our best conversations that way.
2b) Don’t give advice for everything. If I want my kids to talk to me, I have to resist my urge to hand down nuggets of hard-earned wisdom every time they say something. Nothing shuts them down faster than me saying, “and did you know, blah blah blah…” I’ve learned to make noises (“oh!” “mm-hmm,” <gasp>) — to let them know I’m listening, but it doesn’t interrupt their line of thought. Sometimes my kids need to wind up to tell me something.
3) In terms of being safe, the best advice I’ve given my children so far has been not to go somewhere one-on-one with an adult, to blame me (“that sounds great, but my mom’s a real terror and she’ll say no”) if they need an excuse to leave a situation. My husband’s invention is that we won’t yell if they preface something with, “please don’t get mad, but…” They sometimes forget that that last one is an option, and sometimes we have to still have consequences for things they’ve done (but no yelling!), but my kids are much more willing to tell me something if there’s a lock-solid promise of no yelling.
4) My mom and I had a code word. If I called her and said anything about new shoes, she would come get me. That way, I knew that I always had a way to tell her if I was in trouble, even if someone was listening in. She would even sometimes ask. For example “Hi sweetie! Are you having fun? Oh hey, those new shoes you wanted have finally arrived — do you want me to bring them over?” And then I could say yes or no, to let her know how things were really going.
5) Tina Fey wrote a poem to her daughter, and there was one line that stuck with me: “Let her be beautiful and not damaged, for it is the damage that draws the creepy soccer coach’s eye, not the beauty.” That stuck with me, and led me to adjust my parenting so that I built my kids up as best I could. Two of my kids are real challenges, and I realized one of them was hearing 80 percent criticism on any given day. I worked really hard on emphasizing the positive after that realization. I want my kids to have a strong sense of self and to have confidence, so that their internal radars are good, and so that they trust those radars when they go off.
6) Admit when you make a mistake and tell them stories of times you screwed up. My teens particularly like to hear about my “dumb teenager years.” And sometimes it’s as small as catching myself only half listening (like sitting at my computer and saying “uh-huh” at the right intervals, but not really hearing them), and being willing to stop, swing around to face them, and say, “I’m sorry — I wasn’t really listening. You have my full attention now. Can you tell me that again?” There have been times when this results in an eye roll or aggravation, but I’ll take that over the sinking feeling of a lost opportunity that happens if I’ve been half listening and they realize I’m not paying attention and walk away.
MORE RESPONSES FROM OUR COMMUNITY
“Some of the best parenting advice I ever got was to eliminate the word “secrets” for my family. My kids know that we don’t keep secrets from each other. If a grown up (or anyone, I hope) ever told my kids, “this is our little secret so don’t tell your parents,” they would refuse on the spot because we don’t do that. We do, however, keep surprises so that things like presents are still fun!”
“I believe one of the modern cultural shifts that has contributed to an increase in abuse and trafficking is that of “Cocooning” … We don’t talk to our neighbors anymore, we avoid conversations at the grocery store …. The sad effect of all this is: things happen that go unnoticed that should have been seen and reported. To counteract this cocooning trend, as a family we visit our neighbors, bringing them cookies on holidays saying ‘hi’ when they are outside, even (gasp) crossing the street to have face-to-face conversations.
One important aspect of Cocooning is that it can make it hard to tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” When a bank teller gets training on spotting counterfeit bills, they don’t spend hours and hours looking at fake money. Rather, they become intimately familiar with the real thing, then when the phony money comes along it sticks out like a sore thumb. Cocooning makes us socially inept and vulnerable as individuals. Without spending much real quality time with people (the vast majority of whom do not intend harm) we have a much more difficult time picking out those with bad ulterior motives. If we, as adults, have become socially inept and find it difficult to spot the false persona, how much more difficult will it be for our kids?”
“Literature I’ve read shows that a risk factor for a child being molested by someone known to him or her is having parents who are afraid of confrontation. This makes sense because the suspicion of molestation is taboo and emotionally fraught. Another risk factor is that a significant amount of molestation is committed by teenagers, most of whom do not become predators later in life. It seems to be a bad combination of access, an unformed frontal cortex, and the onset of sexual impulses without anyone to act them out with…
So I provide an emotionally and physically safe home. That means that I do not use corporal punishment or shaming. To keep our 10-year-old safe, I taught her Nora Shine’s The “Privates Rule”: [“The Privates Rule is that Privates are Private! Grownups and older kids cannot share privates with kids. That means: No looking at privates or showing them, no touching anyone’s privates, and no pictures of privates! (It is best to be broad and general about what is included in the privates rule. It is not only about touching.”)]
“My husband and I talk to our daughters about their bodies, including using proper names for genitalia, and that their personal space isn’t ever to be touched in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. We have never forced physical contact on them — e.g. forcing them to hug or kiss an adult (even us and their grandparents) when they don’t want to — so that from the start they’ve known that they never have to engage in physical contact against their will.”
“Be honest. It sounds so simple but parents try to protect the kids and shelter them as long as they can, which also can hurt them. Our boys knew when they were young that there was evil in the world and that they needed to be ‘smart.’ … Being honest in a loving way is still the best way to teach them about safety.”
“Our daughter was 14 when we adopted her and she had seen many bad things. She almost thought some of the chaos was normal. We worked with her on what was not a norm and what was healthy. It took years for us to support her in seeing the world as not a continuous drama, where chaos and bad stuff was normal. We worked very hard to tell her that she was not the reason why bad things happened and she had control over so much more than she thought she did.”
“Listen fully, engage with them, hear them out and THEN speak truth. As a mother of three, I am learning this, especially with our 12-year old. To children, time = importance, so if we take the time to talk with our kids, they see they are important to us and begin to trust us.”
“What works for me is open, non-judgmental conversations with my 12-year old daughter. I have those on a daily “detox walk” or, if it’s cold outside, a “detox dance!” We chat about what’s going on with girl friends and boys, too. Then before she goes to sleep we reaffirm the positive things she is going to do the next day.”
“I recognize that just listening to my daughter and not offering advice is what she needs. I also tell her multiple times each day that I love her. I admit my mistakes. … I look for changes in behavior that may indicate a traumatic event. I compliment her often.”
“I firmly believe as families rise up and parents take their place as guardians and protectors of children, traffickers will have less open doors and access to our children.”