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Educating Children for Prevention

A high quality sexuality education program, such as Our Whole Lives (OWL), is one of the best methods for sexual abuse prevention. Children who learn that their bodies are good, that their sexuality is a gift, how to make good decisions, and the language to communicate accurately and effectively about sexuality are also being prepared to respond appropriately when faced with abusive behaviors, to assert their right to control their own bodies, and to tell an adult if such behaviors occur.

Even if OWL is not offered, it is imperative that all children and youth develop the skills to recognize when an adult is acting in an appropriate manner towards them as well as a sense of what to do if an adult tries to engage them in inappropriate behavior. Children must know the names of the parts of their body, and they must trust that adults will believe them if they “tell on” an adult. The Our Whole Lives curricula have sessions on sexual abuse at each of its levels. Regardless of whether the religious education program includes OWL at all levels, it is good practice to offer a sexual abuse prevention lesson as a part of the congregation's religious education program, once during early elementary school (k-2), once during later elementary school (3-5), once during middle school, and again during high school.

A child who understands that their body belongs to them and that no one else should touch any part of it without their consent and permission is less likely to be vulnerable to an adult. Every child, from the age of three onward, can learn “No, Go, Tell”—say no to the abuse, leave the situation immediately or as soon as possible, and tell a parent or care giver if someone tries to hurt them or asks them to keep a secret about touching.

Age appropriate messages for a pre-schooler include:

  • Your body belongs to you. 
  • Other children's bodies belong to them. You should not touch another child's body in any way without their permission. 
  • Tell your parent if any other person makes you feel bad or funny or does something that makes you think, “uh-oh.”
  • You can tell someone, even a grown up and even a relative, not to touch your body if you don't want to be touched. 
  • If someone touches you and tells you to keep it a secret, tell a parent or other grownup anyway.

Age appropriate messages for an early elementary school-age child include:

  • No adult should touch a child's genitals except at a doctor's office. 
  • Sexual abuse occurs when an older, stronger, or more powerful person looks at or touches a child's genitals for no legitimate reason. 
  • A person who is sexually abusing a child may tell the child to keep the behavior secret. 
  • Tell a parent right away if unwanted or uncomfortable touching occurs. 
  • Most adults would never abuse children.
  • Both boys and girls can be sexually abused.

[These are adapted from the SIECUS Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education and my book for parents, From Diapers To Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children , Second Edition, NY: Newmarket Press, 2004.]