What does a sex offender look like? How does one ‘spot’ a molester or someone who is a potential threat to our child’s innocence? What are the ‘signs’ to watch for? From time to time I am asked these questions, or similar ones, by parents wanting desperately to protect their children against predators. And every time it happens, I wish there was a list I could give that parent to say, ‘here are 12 signs that prove…’, or that they had bold stripes, round spots, or some defining feature. But, alas, I am left with a short list, when looking for such clues.
In the first place, a sex offender looks like a normal person. He may look like a well put together businessman, or perhaps a pastor. Alternatively, she may look like a school teacher or Sunday school coordinator. She may even look like an aunt, a mom, a sister or a cousin. Or he may look like a father, a brother, a cousin or a close friend. He may be exceptionally charismatic and captivating, or somewhat recluse, and she may be outgoing and bubbly, with a twinkle in her eye, or reserved and ‘dark’. They may be intelligent and intellectual, or slow and mentally challenged. They may be grandparents… He is anyone within reach of your child, and she is beside him with the same access. There are seldom strongly distinguishing features or clues to peg, with certain confidence, a child molester.
The answer then seems to be to turn to paranoia and suspicion of every person you know. But that is the wrong answer. Second-guessing every person in the life of our children is hardly the solution to a problem like molestation. Over-focusing on the negative has never brought about much positive change. There are a few clues to watch for, but beyond those clues, the answer lies in positively influencing our children and empowering them. But first, the clues…
The person who is ‘very gifted’ with entertaining children is not always the safest person to do so. Some are perfectly safe, some are not. A truly skilled offender knows how to charm victims, groom them, entice them and silence them ‘sweetly’, so as not to have them give clues. (Threats create fear in the child; bribery and making the secret ‘special’ fill a void or make the child feel valued.) Beware the person who finds ways to get children to go on walks, car rides or other isolated places. (Especially when there’s an age gap, but always consider it a red flag when the ‘alone time’ is orchestrated, one way or another.) When uncle or aunt ‘so and so’ promises to buy candy or some treat in an effort to convince the reluctant child to go places, it may be nothing, but may also be a sign. Listen to your child. Tell them it’s okay to stay home this time, and engage in casual conversation about what made them not want to go. I say ‘casual conversation’ because you never want to plant an idea that the person is not safe, or may have done something, if the reticence is merely a mood thing, or some other benign cause.
Watch your child for clues that he or she is not ‘safe’, especially if said child is typically outgoing and loves people and suddenly resists a particular adult or teen. This may well be a sign that the child senses danger or has already had boundaries crossed emotionally, sexually or physically. Be very aware of your child’s sense of boundaries, and respect and reinforce them. Many an adult has told how, in childhood, a parent pushed them to go with their abuser, oblivious to the dangers, and forced them to spend time with them. Children’s gut feelings, instincts and hesitance is not for nothing. If your child has been away, ask your child, when alone, “How was your time with (fill in the name), and what all did you do?” Watch your children for signs of shame, discomfort or anxiety. Some things are impossible to miss.
But more important than ‘spotting the predator’–which is much akin to spotting a needle in a haystack from a great distance, except that it’s more like finding hay with particular marking in a haystack–is teaching children and equipping them to protect themselves. Children need to understand they have the right to say no, and to tell parents or a trusted adult when they are being abused. They need to know that if they feel unsafe, no one will force them to spend time with the people they fear. They need to know the word ‘respect’ and understand that it means not touching, looking at, or showing body parts. And if someone suggests such a thing, they have a safe place to tell, where they will be heard and supported.
Our greatest weapon against abuse is equipping and educating our children.
If they know the truth–that their body is theirs and no one may touch or look,
that it is beautiful and God-blessed–then they will have expectations and a
standard by which to to measure others’ behaviours. The ‘learn as you go’ through experience is not a safe approach, and parental naivety that assumes a child will ‘just know’ (maybe because you told them it is bad) is not going to cut it. The better children understand their own bodies, the value of them, and their right to a ‘voice’, the better off they will be.
~ T ~
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Thank you to all who have offered feedback and reviews on Between 2 Gods either through private messages and email or via Amazon and Goodreads. I appreciate your thoughts and insights, whether constructive criticism and the correction of my understanding of details related to Mennonite history or endorsement, encouragement and blessing.