I don't know that I've ever sent a letter to a columnist before, but today's "Dear Carolyn" advice column really got under my skin and I couldn't stay silent. Here's my response:
I enjoy reading your column every day—it’s usually a breath of fresh air in a newspaper filled with terrible news. That said, I read your column today in the Seattle Times about boundaries, grandparents and the holidays and as a former sex crimes prosecutor and child sexual abuse prevention expert, I think you missed the mark in your answer.
You were correct to point out that if there is good cause to feel uncomfortable the parents should limit and supervise grandparent time. With approximately 90% of all child sexual abuse occurring at the hands of someone known to either the parents, the child, or both (with family members comprising a large percentage), it is critical that parents protect their children and know how to recognize the red flags and warning signs of predator behavior.
In addition, however, it is critical that our children learn from an early age that they have control over their bodies, who touches them, how, when, and how often. They can say yes today and no tomorrow. They can say yes to some touch and no to other touches. And this message must be absolute and sent to both our children and the adults around them. It is not “optional” as you described—after all, we should never expect a child to be the one responsible for their own safety—that is an unfair burden for a child to shoulder. As adults, safety is our job. While it may be a difficult message for grandparents and great-grandparents to hear and receive, it is critical that we ensure that they are hearing it (and us). It is not a message that should only be sent to "open-minded, thick-skinned adults." quite the opposite.
Adults need to learn to ask a child if it is okay that they give them a hug (or a snuggle, or have them sit on their lap, etc.) and to respect the child’s answer. And it is critical that parents watch for discomfort in their children and learn to step in and back them up. If we fail to do this because it’s Grandma enjoys it or it might make Grandpa sad, we are sending the message to our children that the feelings of an adult are more important than their own—and that is a very slippery slope to head down. Even if we trust a particular adult based on our own experience with them, what happens when a teacher or a coach or a priest uses their own hurt feelings to overpower a child? We’ve already impliedly told a child that an adult’s feelings are more important than theirs. Where do you think that leads?
I’ve dealt with this firsthand. When my own daughter was about six, she started getting nervous around my 90+ year-old grandmother. My grandmother was the first person other than my husband and me to hold my daughter when she was born. She flew cross-country twice a year to spend birthdays and Christmas with us. She was the most lovely and amazing human to ever grace this earth. I had ZERO concerns about the safety of my grandmother around my children. But my daughter was suddenly nervous—to her my grandmother may have smelled funny, and she was unsteady on her 90+ year-old legs, didn’t hear well, and had a gravelly voice. My kiddo did not want to snuggle, sit on her lap, and read books with her. This broke my grandmother’s heart, but when my well-meaning mom came to me and asked that I “just make her do it” I had to refuse. I loved my grandmother dearly, but we had to be the adults—her desires to touch my child were not as important as my child’s need to learn that she did not have to be touched.
In my case, my daughter eventually came back to my grandmother on her own and they had a very loving, snuggly relationship when my grandmother left this earth last year. Even had that not been the case, I believe wholeheartedly that I was making the right decisions for my daughter. My experience as a mom, a parent educator, and a criminal prosecutor have taught me that.
So yes, this message does require some explaining, and we can deliver it gently and firmly, but it is critical that we do in fact deliver it. Let me repeat that: It is not optional, it is critical. And it bears repeating again, and again, and again if necessary. Our children need to hear us protecting them and the adults in their lives need to know the boundaries we are setting for our children and for them.
Carolyn, your assertions that “touch is life” and “different cultures have different thresholds” ignores the simple fact that the only threshold that matters is a child’s. If they don’t want to be touched, they do not need to suck it up and allow it to happen because the adults essentially “said so.” Please send this message to your readers. It’s the only way we can prevent a whole new generation of survivors who can say #MeToo.
Thank you, and Happy Holidays!