Is my church's story time actually safe for kids?
Dear Stop It Now!,
I am struggling to decide whether or not to speak up. I support all adults’ rights to their own private sexual relations and choices, but having been victimized as a child myself, I am really struggling with where to draw the line with the latest PRIDE initiatives at my church (eg., clearly trans people reading stories to children in order to validate/normalize their own identities). I fully support their de-stigmatization, among consenting adults who have the choice and capacity to decide if they want to be physically present or not. But I am having a very triggered reaction to their doing so in the context of young children who, it seems to me, should have the right to not be presented with any sexual information whatsoever (apart from learning the parts of their own anatomy in a scientific way and learning that it’s not ok to be touched there other than by a medical practitioner in the presence of an adult). Any/all info greatly appreciated.
Dear Concerned Community Member,
I'm so sorry to hear that you were sexually abused as a child. You absolutely deserved to grow up free from harm. I'm so glad you're taking the time to reach out and share your concerns with this new initiative at your church, as it's an adult's responsibility to keep children safe - and ask questions like these when you're unsure.
Talking to Children: Building Protective Factors
You're right in understanding that children should not be exposed to mature or adult-like sexual behavior or topics - these include things like making mature jokes in front of a child, to an adult describing their sex life in front of a child, all the way to things like showing children pornography (which is considered sexually abusive). However, it is important that children - as you said - get healthy information about their bodies and about healthy sexuality, relationships and health. When children are given information about these topics they serve as protective factors that help keep them safe, and help them understand that their body is their own - and they have a right to say "no" to any touches that make them feel uncomfortable. When children have ways to learn about their body from safe and age-appropriate sources, they are less likely to talk to friends to get answers that may not be accurate, less likely to turn to the internet that may show them pornography, and they are less vulnerable to unsafe adults who look for kids who haven't been taught about their body. For more on this topic, you may want to read our advice column Is Talking to Kids About Sex Harmful?.
Similarly, it is important to give kids information appropriate to their age and stage about things like sexuality, relationships and gender too. But, just like you wouldn't need to give a young child a textbook on biology, you wouldn't want to break out the charts and diagrams - but instead give a young child a simple answer when they ask about pregnancy, gender or even why so-and-so has two mommies. It's normal for preschoolers to start asking more questions about gender roles and differences, and at that age they even start to have a sense of what their gender is. That doesn't mean we need to force them or encourage them to dress or act a certain way, but that does mean that if we help them learn that there are many ways to exist in the world - and that all those ways, as long as they don't hurt others, are okay - that will raise their self-esteem and self confidence. And, seeing themselves reflected in others - having healthy models of people who look like them, love like them, or dress like them - is all important.
Vulnerability and Risk
It also may help to know that, unfortunately, transgender people are much more likely to be the victims of abuse and sexual assault than perpetrators. Similarly, LGBTQ people who experienced strong rejection from their family were 8x more likely to have tried to commit suicide and 6x more likely to report high levels of depression than folks with supportive families. What we know is that when a person feels supported and protected, they are way less likely to hurt themselves or others and more likely to lead healthy and productive lives. And part of feeling supported comes from others seeing you and your identity or sexual orientation as normal.
So, your first steps may be to learn more, by asking the following questions:
- What are the policies in this church that outline adult-youth and child-child interactions? Policies are a key prevention step, and having a culture where adults feel comfortable speaking up when someone has violated a boundary so safety can be addressed is important to preventing abuse. For more on this topic, see our tip sheet on Prevention in Faith Communities.
- Are these books describing these topics in a way that is age appropriate, or more mature and explicit? For example, Amaze and Amaze jr. has some great videos on gender and sexuality that can be helpful for kids at different ages and stages - these can be an example for what age-appropriate language and discussions may be at different stages.
- Are you noticing other concerns in these adults' behaviors towards kids? Please check out our pages on Signs an Adult is At Risk to Harm a Child to see if there are subtle signs that you've seen previously that you couldn't name before; although a single sign doesn't mean a person intends to hurt a child, every warning sign is an opportunity to speak up and set safe limits with the person crossing boundaries.
- Are kids allowed to ask questions, and are adults allowed to sit in and watch, and ask questions too?
- Is this being done in an open area, and with parental/guardian consent?
Planning for Safety
I can tell how much you care about children, and now is a great time to be thinking about safety. Unfortunately, in over 9 out of 10 child sexual abuse cases, the person who is abusing a child is someone known to the family and not a stranger. Overwhelmingly, sexual abuse happens with people children know and trust – family friends, relatives, older children, siblings, youth, faith leaders and family friends. If you’re looking to get the conversation started with your community about prevention, I encourage you to take a look at some of our resources that can help caring adults proactively plan for safety that I've shared below.
Support and Self-Care
I also want to check in with you. How have you been doing? It sounds like this topic felt really triggering to you, and whenever you're having that gut-level response it's a good idea to learn more - and again, I'm so glad you have. Hopefully you'll feel more prepared to reflect on safety in your community with the above tools, tips and reflection questions. Another important step is making sure you're taking care of yourself. This can include reaching out to friends, a relative, or another supportive person - like a therapist - and sharing what you need right now, or giving yourself extra time and space to process the feelings you're having. Whatever you need, please make sure you are being gentle with yourself and taking the time to do self-care; you're not alone in what you're going through, and you also don't have to deal with this on your own. If you don't have a supportive person, you can always find a therapist who is specialized; our pages for Adults Who Have Experienced Sexual Abuse as Children has more.
Last edited on: February 14th, 2023