The story of sports physician-turned-child molester Larry Nassar is every parent’s nightmare. Here’s a man who develops a public reputation as a “miracle worker” and then, slowly and methodically, exploits that reputation to the detriment of nearly 200 children over a period of 20 years.
So trusted and bold was Nassar, in fact, that he was able to sexually violate prepubescent girls while in the same room with their parents, without the parents suspecting a thing.
Nassar’s sick reign came to an end Wednesday when he was sentenced to prison for up to 175 years after a dizzying parade of traumatized young women delivered victim impact statements in court.
The news comes at a time when parents, more than ever before, are inundated daily with evidence of sexual predation at every level. From Harvey Weinstein and the “Time’s Up” movement to Larry Nassar, misconduct at the hands of powerful men is impossible to ignore. The competitive gymnastics community is right to shine a spotlight on the culture that allowed Nassar to flourish for so long, but all of our children are far more vulnerable than we want to imagine. The sexual battery, assault, harassment and exploitation of girls — and, later, of women — are not rare, isolated incidents. Abuse of power is rampant.
So what’s a parent to do?
First of all, it’s important to say that some crimes are not only unforeseeable, but unstoppable—and the Nassar story is as close to one such situation as I’ve seen. Aided and abetted by officials who reportedly paid hush money to keep allegations quiet, Nassar was a master manipulator, grooming the girls for months and years, gaining their trust, and operating in a way that rather brilliantly disguised his perverted intentions.
But we also must recognize that the culture of obedience is not limited to the world of gymnastics. America today is a place where parents make and enforce the rules, and where children’s voices, emotions, and behaviors are continually silenced, discouraged, dismissed, criticized, and punished. The fallback position in many families is still one of control and manipulation. Children are routinely told that their outbursts and tantrums are unacceptable; that “talking back” and “showing disrespect” is grounds for punishment; and that sharing unpleasant information about themselves — “I cheated on a test” or “I got drunk at a party” — will bring their parents pain or shame.
Outdated parenting tactics meant to get children to do what we want, when we want, without argument undermine our efforts to empower children to trust their instincts, question authority, and speak the heck up when the time comes. (And, as we saw with Larry Nassar, you never know when the time may come.)
Again, some crimes are unavoidable; and Nassar operated in a way that made his detection especially tricky. But if parents truly want to do more to protect their kids from the likes of Weinstein and Nassar, there are ways — just not the ways they might imagine.
1. Let your child stand up to authority — starting with yours.
There is no one better equipped to get under your skin than your own flesh and blood. Children have a special way of pushing our buttons, and when they treat us disrespectfully, it can enrage us like nothing else. But in those moments, try to remember that your child’s words, beliefs and attitudes are just her way of communicating that she is feeling hurt by something you, or someone else, did or said. So picture yourself not as her parent, but as any other person in authority who has just done something to upset your child. Let her speak her mind, even when it feels unfair, inappropriate or inaccurate. Take deep breaths; walk away for a few minutes if you need to. Before trying to solve the conflict or reach an understanding, let her talk through her feelings — being sure to acknowledge that all feelings are valid and that you are glad to know how she feels. Try to reach solutions that work for both of you, being sure not to play the “authority” card just because you are fed up with the conversation. “Because I said so” may end a power struggle; but it’s a scary set of words when you picture someone like Larry Nassar saying them.
2. When it comes to your child’s fears, instincts and body, she’s the boss.
It’s kind of amazing how often we assume we know better than our kids how they are feeling in their bodies. Here’s an example: A child has a seemingly irrational fear of dogs. After a few months of dog-avoidance, Mom grows tired of it. “This dog is not going to hurt you!” she tells the child. “You need to stop this nonsense.” Here’s another example: A child eats half a sandwich and announces she’s full. “You can’t be full,” Dad insists. “You’ll be hungry in a half hour. Keep eating.” And a third: A child who has been playing happily all evening suddenly, at bedtime, says he doesn’t feel well. “You’re fine,” Mom says. “Go to bed.” Parents mean no harm when they question and/or prod their kids in such ways — but, even so, it’s not good practice. Better to let your child speak for herself, and be wrong, then to put her in the habit of distrusting or overriding her own instincts.
3. Applaud your child for being honest, even when it’s unpleasant.
A common byproduct of all brands of disciplinary punishments is that they cause children to hold back important truths from their parents. Punishing kids for doing “bad” or “wrong” things or for “misbehaving” sends a message that you are willing to make a child suffer physically or emotionally because of something they did. It represses truth-telling. So go the opposite direction: When your child is honest with you — whether it’s reporting a bad mark at school or admitting she did too much screen time — give her credit. “Everyone does things they aren’t proud of sometimes, and it’s important to me that you know you can tell me anything.” You don’t have to love the underlying thing, but don’t forget to love that she told you.
4. Teach kids about personal boundaries, and do your best to respect theirs.
We all have boundaries — physical boundaries, yes, but other kinds of boundaries as well. When you tell your child you are not willing to let her play with your fine china, that’s a boundary. When you tell her you aren’t willing to make two different dinners, that’s a boundary. Let her know that she has a right to boundaries, too, things that may be okay for others but aren’t okay for her. If she doesn’t feel like sharing a toy, that’s a personal boundary. Respect it. If she doesn’t feel like giving Grandma a hug, let it go. The more you push through her boundaries, the more natural it will feel when other people do the same thing.
5. Use empowering language.
It’s understandably hard for parent to talk about sexual abuse with children. In a better world, our children would never need to learn about being victimized because they would never be at risk of being victimized. That said, there are ways to broach such topics of abuse without spoiling their innocence or scaring them and it starts with using empowering language. “You are in charge of your body.” “If something doesn’t feel right to you, then it’s not right for you.” “Who is allowed to touch you without your consent? No one.” Also, for slightly older kids, talk about how important it is to not only find and use their own voices when it comes to standing up for themselves, but also to lend their voices to others who have not found theirs yet. “If you see something, say something. You are very good at telling people how you feel and what is unacceptable to you personally, but others may not be. We need to help them out whenever we can.”