When it comes to protecting our children from sexual predators, Cordelia Anderson finds the traditional "stranger danger" methods to be off-base. "It's ridiculous to focus all our safety tips on strangers when most of it is perpetrated by someone they know, and maybe also love and trust," said Anderson, a Minneapolis-based consultant who specializes in training on how to prevent violence toward children, and is chair of the National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Exploitation.
Talk about it: For many parents, it's one of the least comfortable discussion topics to bring up with their children. But current estimates are that one in four girls and one in six boys will experience some form of sexual abuse during their childhoods. "Kids need to know it's not about who the person is, but what the person does. No adult is beyond reproach. No adult should be taking sexual pictures or asking them to trade sex acts for treats or attention. There should be no secret they keep with an adult in a position of authority ... that other key adults in their lives don't know about," Anderson said.
How to talk about it: While conversations obviously have to be calibrated to a child's age, "having them regularly makes it easier," she said. "Ask them what they think about cases in the news, or about degrading lyrics in a particular song. Then you can find out what kind of language they use around it [the topic of sex abuse] and what's on their minds. It's OK to say, 'You know, this is a bit hard for me because when I was a kid we just didn't talk about this kind of thing, but now we hear about it a lot and I'd like to talk about it with you.'"
Combat secrecy: Despite all the education and exposure that sex-abuse issues have received over the past generation, it's still very difficult for adults to contemplate reporting on a work colleague, friend or family member whom they suspect of child abuse, Anderson said. "It may be hard to conceive of someone as being brilliant or lovable but also harming children. But bystanders have to resist the 'nots' -- not my problem, not my responsibilty -- and go against the norm, which is still secrecy and avoidance."