When my son was six, police came to talk to children at his school about stranger danger. You should never get in a car with a stranger, they said. And if anything makes you uncomfortable you should get out of the situation. The principal told a story to illustrate the difference between good and bad strangers, a stranger who'd stopped to help a child after the child was nearly hit by a car, a good stranger, compared with bad strangers who... ask you to get in their cars.
Soon after, our son started to have nightmares about the strangers who were going to come and put him in their car. He thought he would have to go and live with them.
No one in these talks, and any subsequent talks, mentioned children's bodies, particularly the parts strangers might be interested in, or what makes strangers dangerous, which might have helped my son put the conversation in context. Moreover, no one mentioned that most people who harm children are anything but strangers to them. I knew, as many others who went to Catholic schools in the seventies knew, that the vast majority are not strangers.
We embarked on what has been an ongoing conversation with our son about his body, privacy and sexual abuse. He's now ten. We've moved on to sexuality, pornography and other issues he will need to negotiate in the world he inherits. At first, my rule was going to be, 'old enough to ask, old enough to know', but now I see the folly of that. Until I started the conversation, he didn't ask, but once I started, and he saw me as a non-judgemental and reliable source, the questions came pouring out. They pour out still.
We started after a specific incident by telling him there are people who want to touch children's bodies, or have children touch them, mostly in places covered by clothes. I named some body parts, because he asked. I also said it's rare, but anyone can be like this, and you wouldn't know it looking at them; they look like anyone else. Some people thought Michael Jackson wanted to do this, for instance.
I was as clear as I could be that these people harm children. Then I got a bit woolly but struggled on. I said private parts of his body are his and keeping them private is important, especially while he's young. It's our job, his father's and mine and all the other grownups in his life, to make sure no one harms him in this way as the harm might be serious. And to make sure no one harms him, we need information. If anyone touched him on parts of his body normally covered by clothes, or asked him to touch them, or talked about those kinds of things, he should tell me, Dad or one of the grownups he trusts. He might feel a bit uncomfortable when it happens; he might not. If it's someone we know, he should still tell us. If they say it's something you don't tell, that's a pretty good indicator he should tell. If he's not sure, check.
I've told him about strangers, the ones in the cars, when that's come up, but I've related it back to to the other conversations, and I haven't focused on those strangers much because they're about as common as sharks, even if they're also as deadly and as impossible to stop as a shark. He's so very young. I know he wouldn't have any chance of stopping a shark.
I am glad our son knows that grownups likely won't harm him. I'm glad he knows we are working to protect him from harm. I'm glad he knows there are harms. A few weeks after our first conversation, he said, 'What's the name of that illness again, the one Jackson Browne had?' It took me a while to understand but I realised he'd put this conversation in with all the other normal warnings of childhood... look before you cross, don't eat too much of that, wear a helmet, which, to me, is where it belongs. Normalised, with plenty of detail according to his capacity - which I imagine is different for every child - so that he understands not only what the danger actually is but also that it's nothing to do with strangers.