One of the things I like about Thor’s pediatrician is that before she does any part of an examination that requires touching below the belt, she says to him, “Thor, I am about to examine your privates. It is okay for me to examine them because I am your doctor, and because your mother is in the room with me. If anyone else asks to look at, or touch your privates, you tell them no, and you tell your mom and dad. These are your private areas, and no other grown-up should ever ask to look at, or touch them. And no other grown-up should ever ask you to look at, or touch their privates. Okay?” And then she does the exam, and as she completes it, she reiterates that it was okay because it was for his health and because I was there to make sure he was protected, and that no other grown ups should be putting their hands on him.
I like that because the first time it happened, he was barely five, in kindergarten, and it gave me an excellent lead in to having deeper discussions with him. “Remember when Dr. H said…” And it helped me give him gentle information to protect himself at an age when he could completely understand the concept. No longer a baby in diapers, or a toddler/pre-schooler in a daycare setting where I trusted the staff, he was on his own as a child in a school full of people I didn’t know, in bathrooms alone, going on field trips with strange adults, and in classes with children who may have already been hurt by someone else.
A recent event made me question whether or not I had given Thor enough information, so I struck up a conversation with him that started with, “Remember when Dr. H said…” and wrapped up with, “Do you know that sometimes other children might ask to look at, or touch your privates? And that it is okay and good to say no to them, too?” He was quiet for too long, and gave me side-eye from the passenger seat.
“Yes,” he finally said.
“Has that ever happened to you?” I asked, glad for the years of acting that kept my voice light.
He considered, again for too long. “No.”
“Has another child asked you to look at, or touch him or her?”
And, bingo. Yes, that had happened as recently as I thought it might have. He was stoic about it. Said that it had made him feel a little funny and he thought it was weird, but he said no because–gross. I agreed. Ew! Germs! We laughed.
Then, we talked about how some kids are curious and don’t have the same idea of privacy, and that doesn’t make them bad kids, but those are still his private areas, and not for anyone else to fool around with. And, I told him if he ever felt worried or afraid to say no, he could use me as an out, and say that his mother told him he wasn’t allowed to do x, y, or z because it was germy–and we both laughed again. Ew! Germs! I try to keep it light. Those little shoulders are too small for it to be heavy.
I was younger than Thor the first time I was bad-touched. I remember it like this: I was wearing my new underwear and a man’s voice told me to take off my panties. I was confused and embarrassed. I climbed into a dress box, pulled the lid over top of me, and shut myself in to hide. Once I was in the dress box, the man insisted I take off my panties. I was afraid to take them off, but I peeled them back to let him look. It happened three times, then he told me what a bad, dirty girl I was–that seemed like a horrible trick to play for my cooperation. If I told, everyone would know I was bad and dirty. And then he went away, and I got out of the box.
It’s a memory I didn’t talk about openly until last year because it has never made sense to me, and because I had an extreme sense of shame attached to it. From that day, I thought I was a dirty, bad girl, and I was obsessed with nudity–something else I kept a secret. I thought that the incident was proof that something was wrong with me, and throughout my childhood, I honestly believed I had been visited by The Devil because I was so evil.
As a grown-up, I understand disassociation, and I understand that when a child can’t make sense of a traumatic situation, they might build a situation that does make sense–I couldn’t tell you who the man was, or what the man looked like. I couldn’t tell you who the voice belonged to. I could just tell you exactly where I was, exactly what I was wearing, exactly how my hair was styled, exactly what he said to me, and how the dress box seemed to appear out of nowhere. In my case, what made sense to me was hiding in a dress box from Kirvin’s–a store that was a thousand miles away.
Because of that, and subsequent abuse by a babysitter–something else I didn’t really talk openly of until last year–I have no idea what is normal childhood curiousity, versus traumatized child curiousity. It is very important to me that Thor never feel ashamed of his body, or ashamed of having natural curiousity about his, or other people’s bodies. It is important to me that he never feel dirty or bad.
It is also very important to me that Thor understands healthy boundaries, that he knows it is okay to wonder and be curious, but not okay to ask for access to anyone else’s bits. It is okay to ask questions–it’s great to ask questions! But you need to ask the right people. I want bodies to be as normal and casual as hair. We’ve all got it, but we all style it a little differently, and it’s only okay to touch it, sniff it, or ask questions about it in certain situations.
Exploration of self and sexuality is part of life, even way before we attach any notions of desire to it. I just don’t want Thor to be in positions where someone else, more precocious and more prepared, pushes him off cliffs he’s not yet ready to dive. I don’t want any dress boxes in his head.