Affirm each child as a gift from God and model appropriate touch, even as you let kids know that the areas of their body covered by a bathing suit should be treated with special care.
Recently my children wanted to see if they were strong enough to push me over. I stood unmoving as my three oldest daughters, ages 8, 7 and 6, crashed into me without success. Then my 5 year old barrelled forward with hands outstretched and slammed into me right below the waist. She won. I fell over.
What amazed me was how her older sisters cried foul. “You don’t touch people there,” they protested. Although what happened wasn’t a big deal, it was rewarding to know that (most of) my children understood that there are certain parts of the body that are off-limits to others.
Parents are rightly concerned about teaching their children appropriate body boundaries. As society has become highly sexualised and pornographic in recent decades, children at younger ages are being exposed to false messages about the significance of the body and how to interact appropriately with others. It may feel imposing to talk about inappropriate touch, but parents don’t have to approach the topic with dread and urgent fear. We all want to prepare our children for life’s dangers, but we don’t need to scare them or introduce shame about their bodies.
In my home, we emphasise the good, true and beautiful, but also talk age appropriately about the deviations we see all around us, whether they appear on TV or on the playground at school. My wife and I approach the task of teaching our children about appropriate and inappropriate touch in several ways:
In the same way a math or English teacher encourages children to reach their highest potential, we teach the best to our children about their bodies. In my home, we affirm each child as a gift from God and talk about how to make our entire lives a gift back to Him and to others. Our bodies are not less important than our spirits; they are an essential part of the way God made us. How we treat our bodies matters to God and can have a significant impact on our well-being throughout life.
Acknowledge inappropriate situations
Talking about these topics with openness and honesty will help your children feel safe and comfortable when they want to tell you things that may feel embarrassing or uncomfortable. Living in a fallen world means that we all fail to fully live out God’s design and purpose for our lives. While careful to shield our children from unnecessary exposure to harmful things, we also want them to understand that brokenness is a reality in life.
It’s helpful for parents to understand that some inappropriate situations will happen naturally as children try to figure out how life works, such as finding two children examining their genitals together or having a child force a kiss on another because “Mummy and Daddy do that.” If we encounter a circumstance that is relatively innocent or benign, we remind our children about how God calls us to live, and we emphasise the ways we should show respect to each other. If something more abusive were to occur, however, it might be appropriate to involve a trained counsellor or even law enforcement.
Point out the larger context
Words such as honour, respect and modesty connect our teachings on appropriate touch to the larger idea of Christian stewardship, which includes the proper care and function of our bodies. Proper care means that we keep our bodies clean and healthy by bathing or visiting the doctor. We talk about the areas covered by a bathing suit as a simple example to explain which body boundaries aren’t to be crossed except for certain exceptions. For example, our children understand there are times when it’s necessary for a doctor or parent to check their genital area, such as during a medical exam.
We also explain how each body part has its specific purpose that serves the whole. And like the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:22-24, we teach that there are areas of the body deserving of special respect and modesty. Modesty is not presented as a reflection of shame, but as a protection of God’s good gifts. The genital areas are for the elimination of waste and for pleasure and reproduction in marriage. If anything happens that doesn’t fit into these two categories, we can return to the consistent messages we’ve shared about the proper function or role of those parts. Again, a more harmful or abusive situation must be treated with seriousness and potentially involve authorities.
Shower children with appropriate touch
The best preparation we can give our children is to demonstrate appropriate touch often by showering our children — and spouses — with kisses, hugs, back rubs, tickles, wrestling and other physical play. Good touch activities such as these remind our kids of how pleasurable and enjoyable it is to follow God’s plan. And how you and your spouse interact with the children is as important as anything you will ever say.