The Four R's of Prevention

The beginning of the school year is a great time for adults to review their understanding of the Four R’s of preventing child sexual abuse—Rules, Read, Respect, and Responsibility—and to get back to the basics of nurturing kids. Prevention promotes healthy behaviors rather than waiting to punish violations, before there’s any need for a cure.

Four R’s of Prevention

Rules (noun) – principles set forth to guide behavior or action. Ex. Everyone’s safer when everyone knows and is clear about the rules for what’s considered acceptable behavior.

Respect (noun) – to show consideration or thoughtfulness in relation to somebody. Ex. Support others with respect to live up to the generally accepted rules and expectations for positive interactions, all the time.

Read (verb) – to interpret the information conveyed by movements, signs, or signals; an understanding of something by experience or intuitive means. Ex: Regularly read what’s going on around you and trust your instincts to stay aware of concerning behaviors.

Responsibility (noun) – the state, fact, or position of being accountable to somebody or for something. Ex. Responsibility for keeping kids safe belongs to every adult in the community, every day.

With the beginning of the school year, teachers, coaches, other kid’s parents, even popular students are assuming new roles of influence or authority over children. Clear, shared guidelines—the rules—about what kids should expect from these relationships let everyone know what’s acceptable and what’s considered questionable, long before there’s a problem.

Respect is the cornerstone of sexual abuse prevention—both as a way to define what makes behavior acceptable and as an essential communication tool when concerns arise. Respectful behavior is the opposite of abusive behavior.

Regularly “reading” the situations where kids play, learn, and work is an important part of prevention. To create sexually safe environments, learn to read and redirect potentially harmful behavior—like ignoring a child’s limits around hugs, kisses or tickling—before a child is harmed. Remember, the focus is prevention, not cure. Signs or signals that someone is struggling to control his or her impulses are often visible long before any sexually harmful actions.

Kids have the right to count on those with authority or influence to stay within the bounds of their particular roles: to take responsibility to follow and enforce the expected rules. Whether the lesson is math or religion, soccer or swimming, successful learning demands a level of openness and intimacy. Good teachers, coaches and others inspire kids to overcome challenges with imagination, creativity, and humor. But over time, some may consciously or unconsciously begin to ignore or gradually change the terms of the relationship, using things like secret understandings, suggestive jokes, or belittling other authority figures to engage kids. Even when there is no harmful intention, regularly breaking the expected rules can leave everyone guessing about what’s okay and create openings to veer off from healthy behaviors.

And don’t forget—older siblings, star athletes, popular students and other kids may need help managing their influence over other children. As they mature, young people increasingly look to peers for cues about rules, often leading to confusion or misinformation. But the ultimate responsibility to provide guidance about safe relationships lies with the adults. Despite what they may say, kids depend on it.

  • Decide on the rules. Talk with friends about what are appropriate rules for those in different roles of authority or influence. Then make your expectations clear to anyone influencing kids.
  • Practice “reading” children’s relationships. Stay aware of the signs or patterns of change. Honor your instincts. Then speak up. Ask questions. Talk through your concerns with others.
  • Be a role model of respect. Insist that others act respectfully toward you. Stay aware of how your actions affect others. Use firm, respectful language to insist that others honor the rules.
  • Embrace responsibility. Be accountable. Start one conversation everyday with a friend or family member about how to fulfill adults’ responsibility to keep children safe.

Kids shouldn’t have the responsibility to recognize and challenge unsafe behaviors. A whole community of responsible adults, reading behaviors, respectfully supporting kids and other adults to understand and follow the rules—that’s the best way to prevent sexual abuse. Our kids are counting on us. And after all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!