By Dr. Shani Verschleiser
As parents, we try very hard to protect our children and keep them safe. We send them to camp to enjoy their summer. We hope that sunscreen will be applied if needed, water will be provided so they don’t get dehydrated, that the kids will be nice, and if they are not, that the counselors will take care of our kids. I hope the camp staff can help me with something else that I feel is so important. There are too many campers who won’t go swimming the entire summer. The reason: they don’t want to change into their bathing suits in front of other kids. Can you blame them? I wouldn’t want to, and I’m willing to bet neither would you, but, somehow, it’s OK to tell our children that they must change that way because everyone else is OK with it, there are not enough staff members to take kids to the bathrooms to change, and other seemingly valid reasons.
I prepare my kids before camp by speaking to them about body boundaries and other safety topics. After my kids came home one summer telling me that they did not want to change in front of everyone, that it made them uncomfortable, that their stomachs hurt in a strange way when everyone looked at them, I added to my yearly talk that if they wanted to change privately they could. I told them it was their right to have privacy—at least it should be. But, sadly, in many places it is not. My 4-year-old is already able to say that she doesn’t feel comfortable undressing in front of all the kids and finds it upsetting when her requests are not taken seriously. I get calls from parents of kids in many different camps with the same question.
Let me first talk about why I care and why you should, too. Firstly, I want all children to know that they deserve to be respected and have their feelings acknowledged. They are people too, despite their small size and small voices. If a 4-year-old, 7-year-old, or 9-year-old says, “I’m not comfortable,” good for them. It should be validated. So many adults cannot express their feelings because they were always taught to squash whatever came up if it caused “trouble” for others. This leads to so many difficulties as adults that I could spend pages and pages on that alone.
Secondly, preventing sexual abuse is not only about telling kids that no one should be touching their private parts. It’s about practice in real-life situations that our words can be applied. When an adult in a child’s life who is safe allows a child to speak their discomfort, respects the feeling, and tries to help them feel comfortable, the message to the child is that they have a voice. If, G‑d forbid, a predator walks into their life and tries the opposite tactic by saying or doing things like “It’s no big deal” or “You have to undress because . . .” the child has a reference in their own experience: “Hey, that doesn’t seem right—my counselor said I don’t have to.” If the message is that your body belongs to whoever needs something from it right now, that’s pretty dangerous for any child to hear.
Children are also not always comfortable in their own skin—just like many adults. Comments can often be heard such as: I’m too skinny, too fat, have too many birthmarks, scars, etc. They deserve to make the choice of whether to expose themselves to others or not.
Lastly, remember that our children are taught from day one about modesty and covering up. Everyone knows the child sitting on the couch, legs crossed, underwear showing, as we whisper, “Psst, your skirt.” Not to mention the lessons for girls: cover your knees, cover your elbows, cover your collarbone. And for boys it could be: don’t wear shorts, always keep your shirt on, and more. We then expect to throw our kids into a room and have them take everything off because here it is OK. What a conflicting message! Some will say it’s OK because it’s all boys or all girls, but when kids are small they haven’t gotten that far yet to fully understand modesty in regard to gender. To them it’s all about their own bodies in relation to others.
There will always be kids who don’t mind changing or undressing in front of others; to that I say even more so what an important lesson to teach. Now you will probably say that you want to do this, but how? You can’t take each child to the bathroom one at a time. I understand, but there are other solutions. For example, a coat rack with a shower curtain can be used as a makeshift dressing room. A towel hung up or a sheet draped somewhere is just an example of how to do this practically and at low cost. The point is not exactly how it is done, but the message behind the action. “I understand you’re uncomfortable; your body is private and should be kept that way. Let’s figure something out to make you more comfortable.” What an amazing lesson for every kid to know. Imagine the lives that could be saved with that simple sentence.
Shani Verschleiser, LMSW, Au.D., is a noted speaker on the subject of child safety. She has educated thousands of individuals on the topic of protecting children from sexual abuse through the curricula created by her and Magenu.org, a national not-for-profit organization that Shani cofounded with her husband, Eli. To learn more, follow them on Facebook @Magenu.org.