The number of children who are abused is breathtaking. Abuse, unfortunately, comes in many forms. But rather than depress you with the reality of the epidemic of abuse, I’d rather encourage you by talking about viable solutions. Quite frankly, our time on this planet is limited. We need to call people to action and do it now. It’s one thing to say, “My, how horrible.” It’s quite another to say, “Alright, how do we step up and stop it?” We can make the solution as complicated or as simple as we’d like. Personally, I like the concept of KISS (keep it simple, stupid!). So I offer five things you can start doing the second you finish reading this article. The problem, in my opinion, is that we often offer complex or inadequate training, overburden people with facts, and give them “performance anxiety.” People with too much information often are too intimidated and don’t know which of the 5,000 pieces of information is the “right” one to use.
Even though I’ve boiled this solution down to 5 steps, it’s not as if you can memorize this list and you’re good to go. Like anything else, you’ve got to practice, practice, practice. Really, you’ve got to turn these 5 steps into an extension of yourself so that it becomes as natural to you as hopping on a bike and riding. At first you will be wobbly, second guess yourself, and wonder if you’re doing it right. But after a couple weeks you’ll find yourself becoming increasingly confident in your ability to help innocent children stay safe. These steps are in progressive order, with each one building on the previous step. Enough rambling, I’ll just get to the point:
#1 Assess your surroundings–You have got to learn to assess your surroundings all of the time. I lived with a pedophile for decades and literally didn’t have a clue. This gives me some degree of authority on this issue. I know what it’s like to take a close relationship for granted and to not properly assess every situation. Most pedophiles (over 90%) are known well by their victims. That means they are abusing their own family members or their friends’ kids. Because pedophiles are either related to us or are close personal friends, we can’t bank on the “creep factor” to tip us off. Trust me on this one. The “creep factor” is very subjective anyway. Think about it. We are creeped out by people we don’t like, not people who are our good friends. We must assess and monitor our surroundings. I’ll talk about asking the right questions later, but the best way to assess is simply to observe with fresh eyes.
I am now in the habit of being incredibly vigilant everywhere I go. You police officers or military folk know exactly what I’m talking about. Once you know what evil people are capable of and what tactics they use, you constantly watch and listen for subtle threats. My eyes are always moving and my ears are always listening. I recently was at a doctor’s office and saw two sisters with their dad. His mannerisms seemed off to me. It’s hard to explain, but his stance was too familiar with his girls. I watched from a distance and noticed that the sisters looked very uncomfortable around him and every time he touched them, they would shrug it off and look at each other behind his back. When the one girl turned to the side, she had tears streaming down her face. All of these signs could be nothing, but they also could be something. After they left, I told the receptionist that the girls seemed very uncomfortable around their dad and I asked that she speak to the physician who had just seen the girls. Perhaps the doctor saw something too. Maybe she didn’t. But when we see something that’s not right, we need to speak up and say something. Remaining silent is what perpetuates abuse. Abusers are counting on people not talking.
#2 Make It Your Business–We are brainwashed into thinking that nothing is our business (though a small number of people falsely believe that everything is their business). I often tell my congregation that what goes on in the privacy of my home is their business. If I’m slapping my wife and kids around, it’s the church’s business. If I’m being verbally abusive, it’s the church’s business. If we see or hear something that is out of line, we must make it our business. Research the bystander effect. It is a very real phenomenon where people can literally walk over or around a corpse lying in the street, or a rape victim, or witness a child abduction and do nothing to stop it. There are a number of psychological principles at play, but basically we subconsciously are passive because we’ve bought the lie that anything that goes on near us is not our business. So we see the world through a different lens and fail to properly assess real threats.
The video below shows people who do properly assess the situation as threatening and make it their business to intervene. While it’s always good to see people overcome the bystander effect, what’s troubling to me is how long it took people to move from assessment to intervention. If you are extra attentive, notice how conflicted they are to intervene even when the girl is blatantly being coerced to leave with the man. You can see the inner conflicting voices saying, “Should I do something or just let it go?” I assure you that when we practice assessing and making bad things our business, we will be much quicker at intervening! It should not take this long for people to intervene.
#3 Ask the right questions–It’s one thing to ask questions. It’s quite another to ask the right questions. Until we get in the habit of assessing situations and make things our business, we will fail every time at asking the right questions. It’s amazing how pedophiles can blatantly post on social media pictures of themselves with kids sitting in their laps or lying in bed together and nobody asks questions. In fact, I read comments of people praising grown men who brag about all the hugs and kisses they get from small children, or how wonderful their sleepover was that they hosted. I see men inviting young children over to their homes for sleepovers and not one person is asking him why! This is not a judgment on others. We didn’t question my dad when he did these things. We didn’t question why he wanted to be a “manny” (male nanny). We didn’t question why he invited children over for sleepovers. We didn’t question why he would drive 2 hours to take a young child to a doctor’s appointment. The reason? We didn’t properly assess his actions and we didn’t feel like it was our business to question him. It sounds strange, but I see it play out time after time with other people now. I don’t recommend asking questions that assume anything. For example, you shouldn’t ask, “Are you attracted to kids?” Rather, ask questions about things that you actually witness. If someone exhibits inappropriate behavior, call them out on it. Don’t be afraid to ask.
When we see something that seems strange to us, we need to ask very pointed questions. For example, “Mr. Smith, why do you keep inviting young children into your home to have unsupervised sleepovers?” “Why are you posting pictures of kids not your own sitting in your lap? Isn’t that incredibly inappropriate?” “Why do you make highly inappropriate comments about little girls starting to ‘bud’?” “Why do you insist on spending alone time with those kids?” “Don’t you think it’s wrong to post pictures of other people’s kids and you lying in bed?” “Why are you texting with a minor?” “Why are you commenting on a minor’s pictures about how sexy they look?”
#4 Invite others into the conversation–We’re very afraid of being labeled a gossip, so we default back to, “It’s none of my business.” Gossip is when we make things up about a person and spread those lies to others. One thing I recommend is to ask other parents and children how a certain person makes them feel. Never assume that people don’t have concerns about someone just because they don’t voice the concerns. I wish we would have invited others into a conversation about my dad years ago. It turns out, most people who knew my dad had major concerns about his behavior with children. But not one person ever spoke up about it. Asking the right questions is not only a powerful tool aimed at a potential child abuser, it’s a powerful tool to use with other people. We need to ask the right questions of people within our social circles.
For example, we could ask other parents, “Do you believe Mr. Smith is crossing physical boundaries with kids?” “Does he make you uneasy?” “What specifically makes you feel uneasy?” “Has he ever made inappropriate comments about children to you?” “Does he seem aggressive in getting children alone?”
And we may ask children, “Does Mr. Smith make you feel uncomfortable?” “Has he ever told you to keep a secret?” “Has he ever done anything to make you feel ashamed?”
#5 Stop letting others control your feelings–Most of us constantly worry about what others think of us. Believe it or not, many people are discouraged to report abuse or intervene by family, co-workers, even spouses. We revert back to our default mechanism that tells us, “It’s not our business.” People often feel like they are going to take an already sensitive situation and make it worse if they intervene. Many people who are “in the moment” lose the ability to empathize with a victim, so our brain does all kinds of strange games like rationalizing the abuse. We think, “Maybe I didn’t really see what I just saw,” or “It was probably just this one time–a fluke.” Believe me, when I found out my dad had sexually abused a child I was terrified at what others would think when I reported him to police. I had a million reasons why I shouldn’t turn him in, but I had one good reason why I should. In cases like this, we can’t weigh options. We simply have to do what is right, even when there are condescending voices telling us not to.
If we practice these 5 steps, we can make a huge impact on innocent lives around us. We need to actively intervene when something’s not right. It’s a mistake to wait until something bad has already happened. We can and we should do better than that.