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Having "The Talk" Before Our Children Go To Camp
Chicago Community Kollel Interactive Parenting Column #68
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
Publication: Chicago Community Kollel

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Dear Rabbi Horowitz:

We read on your website that you recently lectured in Brooklyn on how and when to have "The Talk" with one’s children – speaking to them about abuse prevention and personal privacy before sending them off to camp. We would be very grateful if you were to write a synopsis of your lecture. We would also appreciate your candid response to some questions that we have about the overall issue of abuse:

• Is this "real" – should we be concerned about our children being abused in camp (or school, for that matter)?

  • And if it is a real concern, do you think we should keep our children home and not send them to camp this summer?
  • Should we be discussing the abuse issue with the camp owner/director and asking what he is doing to keep our children safe? How?

Rabbi Horowitz Responds

To begin with, this is a very “real” issue and one you most certainly ought to address. As a parent, if you chose to ignore this matter, you do so at great risk to your children. From my vantage point, due to the number of predators and untreated victims, I think that abuse and molestation are by far the greatest danger to your children – physically and spiritually. However, you should not overreact and refrain from sending your children to sleep-away camp. Much as we would like to, we cannot follow our children and protect them forever. The good news is that there are sensible steps that you can take to keep them safe from predators – at home or away from home.

I think it is perfectly reasonable for you, the consumer, to politely contact the camp director and ask him/her what has been done to prevent any form of abuse and what procedures are in place in the event that inappropriate behavior takes place. But ultimately, the most effective protection for your children will need to come from within, since only a small percentage of abusers are educators or summer camp staff members.

I encourage you to think of abuse prevention for your children in two distinct arenas.

The first is to see to it that the settings where you place them – school, summer camp, the homes of your family, friends and neighbors – be safe and nurturing ones. Always keep in mind that abuse is far more likely to occur when there is a breakdown in the comfort level and individual rights of children and adults. It stands to reason that in an atmosphere of intimidation and fear, children are far more likely to meekly submit to the warped demands of a predator, than one where personal space is sacrosanct and children are treated with dignity.

With that in mind, you may be well served to consider this before sending your children to the homes of their friends or when selecting schools and summer camps for them. In my opinion, if there is corporal punishment or if there is a climate of fear in these homes or institutions, you should look elsewhere. You may want to explore that when speaking to the camp director and ask him/her how they discipline unruly children and what their policy is regarding ‘potching.’ If you are sending your child into an environment where this is tolerated or encouraged, be forewarned that you are dramatically increasing the odds that he/she may be abused in other ways as well. Also note that this type of intimidation is toxic whether or not your child is poorly treated, because it sends a resounding message that under certain circumstances, an adult has the right to ‘strip’ a child of his/her dignity.

The second subset of abuse prevention is more portable in nature – where you train your child to be self confident and assertive of his/her personal space and dignity. It is very common that abuse victims felt they had no choice but to go along with the demands of the molester. So it is of paramount importance to convey to children that they should not ever be forced to do things that make them feel uncomfortable. Tell them that if they are asked to do something that “doesn’t feel right,” they have the right to say no – even to an adult.

Most predators have an uncanny recognition of the children who have grown up in circumstances where their personal space is denied and self-confidence undermined. They then turn their attention to them and stay away from the kids who exude positive energy. Therefore, you ought to think of abuse prevention as a year-round process and not simply “Having The Talk” with your child before sending him/her off to summer camp. (I encourage you to read Safe and Secure, a column I published in Mishpacha Magazine on abuse prevention. For a broader treatment of this issue, please review two additional columns on this matter; The Monster Inside, and Human Problems.)

As far as “The Talk” goes, keep it simple. In a calm, matter-of-fact manner, explain to them the notion of ‘good touching’ and ‘bad touching.’ One way of expressing this concept is to explain to them that no one, except for parents, can touch them in a spot covered by a bathing suit. Please do not alarm them, but rather frame the discussion as one of safety, and use the same tone that you would use when informing them not to take candy from strangers and not to cross the street without an adult. “Your body belongs to you,” (or, “Your body is on loan to you from Hashem”) is a theme that may be helpful when explaining this.

On visiting day, be sensitive to changes in your child's behavior, and have your antennas go up if someone is paying an unusual amount of attention to your child or giving him/her inappropriate or expensive gifts. If you notice a marked change in the temperament of your child, you may want to explore things with them, inquiring if everything is in order, and asking if there is anything you need to know, or if there’s anything they want to tell you.

To sum up; by all means, have “The Talk” with your children before they go off to camp. But it is far more important to have the mindset that abuse prevention is an ongoing, year-round process.

© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

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