May 4, 2012

On Wednesday, Falls Church resident Michael Gardner — the former chairman of the Falls Church Democratic Party and the husband of the former mayor — was convicted of molesting two girls at his daughter’s slumber party. This news undoubtedly has parents asking themselves a question they may have asked many times before: How can I keep my children safe when they’re in the care of someone else?

It’s a fraught question, but as the mother of three girls and an advocate for children, I can offer seven answers.

1. Use accurate language. From the earliest age possible, teach children the proper names for their body parts — genitalia included — and encourage them to use these words. Using proper language empowers children with universally understood terms and sends a signal to any potential victimizer that someone has taken the time to arm that child with important information.

2. Teach boundaries. Your children should know that their bodies belong to them alone. Young children can absorb the message that no one should touch them if they don’t want them to and that they have a right to say no to unwanted physical contact. We can help them develop strong boundaries and understand what they should do if someone crosses those boundaries.

3. Open their eyes. Many parents’ first instinct is to shield their children from hard truths about the world. But children are safer when they know that abuse takes place, what it is and how it can happen. This knowledge is essential to their developing a clear understanding that, if someone does something inappropriate or that makes them uncomfortable, they can tell you or another trusted adult. And instruct them to keep telling until somebody takes action.

4. Know who’s supervising your children. Never turn over your children to someone to whom you wouldn’t turn over your car keys. In other words, parents need to make the effort to get to know the people and institutions to whom they entrust their children. Don’t be timid. Exercising appropriate parental responsibility and vigilance means asking questions about your children’s surroundings, friends and safety wherever they are — including in other people’s homes.

5. Talk openly. In age-appropriate ways, make honest, respectful, regular communication with your children a part of your life. The standard should be: No secrets.

6. Get educated. Do your homework about the changing risks facing your children in today’s society — in the physical realm and on the Internet. Read, take workshops, get training and share tips and information with other parents to learn how to reduce these risks.

7. Finally, practice what you preach. As parents we can do what we try to teach our children they should do, even in the small moments.

Case in point: One recent morning, in the drop-off line at my 8-year-old’s school, she refused to kiss me goodbye. Evidently, I had said something that disturbed her 8-going-on-18 sensibilities. So, when I asked for a kiss, which usually she initiates, what I got instead was a cold stare and no movement. “No kiss?” I said. “Okay. I love you. Have a wonderful day!”

She opened the car door, got out and walked into school. No goodbye kiss, no forced affection. I honored her choice. After all, her body is hers. I was left to accept what I’ve taught her, and to be the grown-up.

Let’s all be grown up so that our children can grow up safer.

The writer is executive director of the nonprofit Safe Shores-The D.C. Children’s Advocacy Center, which provides services to child victims of abuse and their families.