Sometimes evil exposed gives us pause to embrace fear for our children.
But we cannot.
In the past 11 days, my little community of State College has been turned on its heels. as seemingly well-documented allegations of child sexual abuse land upon Jerry Sandusky. This man was once the golden boy of our city due to his charitable work in founding The Second Mile, which helped rescue the boys he is now presumed to have raped. Worse yet: powerful, trusted Penn State University football and academic leaders at the very top seem to have covered it up.
But I’m not here to weigh in on the scandal.
I’m here to help your family answer tough questions from the littlest people who may overhear what’s happening. I was heartbroken last week when a close friend from the deep South—several states and hours away from the epicenter of this horrific news—recounted to me a conversation she had with her little girl. Sadly, her daughter had questions about what she heard on the news, and my friend found herself explaining what happened. She did so bravely, careful not to give too many details but enough for her daughter to understand.
Can I be bold and say that my friend did the right thing by answering the tough questions? No parent desires for their children to have their innocence ripped out of them by having knowledge of such filth. But let me suggest that the greatest way we can protect our children from experiencing a similar evil is for them to be informed and that means we have to talk about it. This scandal is an opportunity to talk with your children.
Here are a few practical tips to guide the conversation:
1. If your children are between the ages of 3-5, they are old enough for you to begin to talk about pedophiles. That’s sounds shocking, I know. But you won’t be describing in detail what a pedophile seeks out, thinks about, or does. You’ll simply be letting them know that no one should touch their private parts and that if someone does, they can tell you. They should know that if anyone touches or asks them to see their private parts; or tries to show them pictures, makes them look at, or touch anyone else’s private parts, or does anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, they should tell you. It’s important that you emphasize that you need to know, no matter who the person is or how much it seems the person can be trusted.
Ninety three percent of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by a family member or friend. I think of a dear friend whose elderly and once very good grandfather had undergone a terrible stroke just about the time she was a tween. In his confused state of dementia, he began to grope her in the back seat of the car one day. Her mother’s words came to mind and she told someone. She was not terribly harmed, but was rather empowered to protect herself and measures were taken to keep the grandfather away from children in his mentally confused state.
It seems that at least one of the victims in the Penn State scandal knew that he could tell his mom. He did. And because he did, his mother was able to deal with the situation before his abuse escalated to rape.
2. Emphasize that some people have a “touching problem” and that this is not good. It was just this kind of conversation that saved the little boy mentioned above. He seemed to know that someone who makes touching appear accidental, or made him feel uncomfortable, needed help. Explain to your child that someone with a “touching problem” needs to get some help just like someone with a problem with stealing might. If the person doesn’t get help, they could get into a lot of trouble in the future.
3. Warn your child specifically that there are people with “looking problems” on the Internet. One out of five children using chat rooms have been approached by pedophiles. Only 25 percent of them ever tell someone. Tell them that it’s as inappropriate to look at someone’s private parts, or to let someone look at theirs, as it is to touch them.
A ministry associate called me recently, heartbroken because his 9-year-old daughter had been subjected to sexual photos on the Internet. In my house, we simply kept little ones off the Internet. No social mediums until they were 12, and then they could only have friends that they knew will also be friends with me. No chatting. In general, I just think this territory is too difficult and dangerous for a child to navigate. But we still discussed the risk so that they would know about it should they be at someone else’s home and come upon a predator.
4. Be sure that your child knows that someone with a “touching” or “looking” problem will often try to trick them into not telling. Give specific examples. Sometimes a pedophile will buy gifts, candy, or offer special privileges to keep a child’s silence. Another thing a pedophile is known to do is make threats. Make sure your child knows that you are more powerful than anyone who would threaten his you like this. And that’s true. Few people have the power that the State College pedophile enjoyed; he was at the top of the game, literally. Yet it was a mom—I’m guessing she was poor and single since her son was a recipient of The Second Mile—who had the most power against him, according to the written report.
A good conversation is a good start in protecting your child, and there are many other wise things we can consider in protecting our children. One thing we can’t do is respond in fear. As 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “God does not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind.” To become overprotective would be an ungodly response. He gives us a much better weapon to protect our children: prayer. And we need to exercise that tool at a time like this.
The climate in State College right now is one of prayer. The city church is broken, sad and ashamed. The Christian ministries on campus—from CRU to the Navigators to local ministries like Alliance Christian Fellowship—are in a deep posture of repentance and prayer. At any given hour, there is a prayer vigil that I can join in seeking God’s face and inviting his Holy Spirit into this nightmare to turn it into something good.
Last week when my 21-year old son was on his way to a prayer vigil and my local Facebook network lit up with news of the riots, I had a brief moment of fear. I wanted to tell him to stay home. But I knew that was not the right answer. So I started to pray. I texted my son and asked him not to walk to the prayer location, knowing he had to go through the area where the riots were breaking out.
Then, I cried.
And I prayed some more knowing that the Lord was escorting my son through the chaos.
He escorts your children, too, when you ask.