EP23: No Secrets w/ Feather Berkower of ParentingSafeChildren.com
“Are you willing to feel a little uncomfortable by having these conversations so your child never has to live it?”
How to connect to your gut instinct, weird vibes and not wanting to offend or get it “wrong” (but what if you’re right?). Saying f*ck politeness (as the My Favorite Murder podcast taught us), celebrating the “no”, realizing that we don’t get the weird feeling in our gut unless something IS “off”, normalizing the conversation around sex assault prevention, and how perpetrators are looking for parents that have a gut feeling and turn the other way because they’re too scared to speak up.
We talk about all this and much more in our interview with the wise and empowering, Feather Berkower. She shares so many hands-on and practical skills so be sure to tune in!
Links/Resources Mentioned in Today’s Episode:
- Feather Berkower’s Book – Off-Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse
- How to contact Feather Berkower
- Children Assault Prevention resources
- “Fuck Politeness” – My Favorite Murder podcast
- Conversation Starter Cards
- Books by Gavin de Becker: The Gift of Fear and Protecting the Gift
- Parenting Safe Children Workshops
P.S. Be sure to Rate, Review and Subscribe to the podcast in your favorite podcast player!
S2 EPISODE 23
[0:00:00.6] ERIN LINEHAN: The contents of this show are for educational, informational and entertainment purposes only. Any information on the show does not create a client-therapist relationship and should not be taken as professional advice. Before making any decisions regarding your healthcare, ask your personal physician, or mental healthcare professional, or call 911 for any emergencies.
[0:00:21.5] AMY MOORE: We are three friends exploring connection. From the coffee shop to the podcast studio. I’m Amy.
[0:00:26.6] ANNA NEWELL JONES: I’m Anna.
[0:00:27.6] ERIN LINEHAN: I’m Erin.
[0:00:35.4] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Okay. Today, we have Feather Berkower. We are so excited. She is with parentingsafelchildren.com. Feather is a licensed clinical social worker and holds a master’s of social welfare from the University of California, Berkeley. She has been a leader in child sexual abuse prevention since 1985 and has educated nearly 150,000 school children, parents and youth professionals.
Her well-regarded workshop, Parenting Safe Children empowers adults to keep children safe from sexual assault. Feather co-authored Off Limits, a parenting book that will change the way you think about keeping children safe. It is available on her website and she presents in schools, youth organizations, parenting groups and businesses nationwide. Feather is also available for private consultation at an hourly rate.
We are so excited to have Feather on today, because of the connection to keeping kids safe. I was really interested in having Feather on, because reading her book, I noticed that so many parents don’t trust that inner gut instinct. I really wanted to talk to you Feather personally, about how parents can trust that inner gut instinct, so the connection to that instinct.
[0:01:53.8] AMY MOORE: Feather, thank you so much for being here.
[0:01:57.4] FEATHER BERKOWER: Hi. I’m so excited. Let’s jump in.
[0:02:00.9] AMY MOORE: Yeah, let’s do it. We wanted to just start off with a little bit of your own background and we’d love to hear about how you got involved in this work and why it is so important to you.
[0:02:16.3] FEATHER BERKOWER: Okay, great. I always giggle when I’m asked this question, because the story is it’s not all that exciting, but it is what it is. When I was in undergraduate school at San Francisco State, I had to do an internship for my BA. I had no idea what I wanted to do with a Women’s Studies BA. I found an internship at an organization called Child Assault Prevention, which was a school-based program that taught kids about bullies and strangers and people they know and love and trust who may touch them.
I was brand new to the issue of child sex abuse. I did this internship when I was about, I don’t know, 20-years-old. I can’t tell you why, but something was sparked in me. Something moved me so much that I knew I had to do this work. Simultaneously, I had seen a movie on TV, a made-for-TV movie, which was called Something About Amelia, about a 10-year-old girl who was being incested by her father. At the end of this two-hour movie, I turned to my roommate and said, “That’s my life work.” I just decided in that moment and I’ve been doing it ever since.
[0:03:31.1] AMY MOORE: Wow. That’s an intense calling and so clear, it sounds like, that you knew what you had to do. Well, I can personally say so, I attended one of your in-person workshops and I know for me, it was a whole new perspective that I had never gotten exposure to before. I think, I mean, I was just so grateful for everything that you brought to the attention of the attendees.
I’m wondering if from your work and the workshops, if you can talk a little bit about and I don’t know, I know we had talked about a warning that maybe we wanted to give our listeners. Was there some –
[0:04:12.1] FEATHER BERKOWER: Yeah. Actually, I like to call it an acknowledgment that there are survivors joining us today. There are people listening who have experienced child sex assault, because the numbers and the prevalence is so high. It’s one in three girls and six boys by the age of 18. Yeah, so I just –
[0:04:30.9] AMY MOORE: Wait. Did you say one in three girls?
[0:04:32.6] FEATHER BERKOWER: One in three girls and one in six boys by the age of 18 will be sexually abused. Yeah. If people are listening who have lived through this themselves, or have friends and family and loved ones who have just to take care of yourself while you’re listening. This will be an empowering session and will give hope and skills, but it also can be very personal. We all want to just acknowledge that.
[0:04:58.5] AMY MOORE: Yeah, thank you. Your whole goal it sounds like, is raising awareness and then I heard you say empowerment, which that’s the best thing about the message is that for such a heavy, intense topic that often people don’t really acknowledge, it’s so great that you are taking the perspective of raising awareness and then giving people hope.
[0:05:24.6] FEATHER BERKOWER: Yeah. That’s what Parenting Safe Children is all about. Yup.
[0:05:27.5] AMY MOORE: Yeah. Yeah. Can you tell us a little bit about how the organization started and its mission?
[0:05:32.8] FEATHER BERKOWER: Sure. When I worked for the Child Assault Prevention program and all the years that I – I actually stayed with that program for about five years after I got my master’s and then worked in mental health and worked in treatment with kids who were sexually abused. For me, I came to the belief that it’s really an adult’s responsibility to protect children from sexual assault, that children can learn protection skills and it’s important that they do and we can talk about those today.
Ultimately, it is up to adults to protect kids, not for children to have to protect themselves. They still need their skills. What we can talk about in this call is how parents and caregivers and anyone with kids in their lives can create environments for children that minimize risk by deterring adult people who have the propensity to sexually abuse children. That’s what Parenting Safe Children is all about.
I moved from working with kids to working with adults only. That’s when Parenting Safe Children was born. I think it was back in 2006. I offer workshops to parent communities and to youth professionals in rec centers and schools and churches, synagogues, wherever youth professionals gather, and give the education to both parents and people working with kids. Yeah.
[0:07:02.7] AMY MOORE: Hey, Anna.
[0:07:03.1] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Yeah?
[0:07:03.9] AMY MOORE: You know, Erin’s a pretty badass therapist, right?
[0:07:06.5] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Oh, I totally know. I just take notes when she’s talking.
[0:07:09.9] AMY MOORE: Me too. Some of our audience does as well. Did you know that there’s also a place that you can get information directly from her?
[0:07:19.9] ANNA NEWELL JONES: On her website, right?
[0:07:21.1] AMY MOORE: Yeah. Didn’t you do it?
[0:07:22.9] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Yeah.
[0:07:23.2] AMY MOORE: Tell us about it.
[0:07:24.0] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Yeah, so there’s all these free workshops that they’re offering. At thekaliinstitute.com, you can sign up for those. K-A-L-I is how you spell Kali and then Institute, thekaliinstitute.com.
[0:07:36.6] AMY MOORE: Get it done.
[0:07:43.0] ANNA NEWELL JONES: The thing that really struck me about your book is I feel when I became a parent, this was my number one fear of keeping my son safe and then actually Amy introduced me to you and your work and she was like, “Oh, my gosh.” I went to this workshop and I immediately went and got the book and I devoured it. The thing that was so different about your approach is that I feel so many times people talk about like it’s such a huge fear. It’s such this thing that can’t be stopped in a way. At least, that’s how I thought of it before.
Reading the book it was like, wow, there are actually things I can do as a parent and it just – the book presented it in such a way that it was here are actual tips and practical advice on things that you can do as a parent and as a caregiver.
[0:08:32.6] FEATHER BERKOWER: I’m so glad to hear that.
[0:08:34.4] ANNA NEWELL JONES: It was like, it gave me so much hope. It was like, this isn’t something that my son just has to be a victim to. From then on, I started – I tell every single person about it. I even have a friend who I gave her the book and she – it’s a very sensitive topic for her, so I redacted it. I went through and I was like, “I’m going to just white out these parts that are a little more –
[0:08:57.5] AMY MOORE: Oh, no way.
[0:08:58.7] ANNA NEWELL JONES: – a little more visual, just because the other parts of it are just so vitally important. I feel this is required reading for every single parent and caregiver.
[0:09:08.7] FEATHER BERKOWER: Can you tell us one thing, just one thing from the book, like you just talked about feeling so empowered and getting hands-on skills that you walked away with it? What’s one thing that like a light bulb that went off for you, or that you took away?
[0:09:22.1] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Yeah. You know what, there are so many things. There’s actually three things that I took from it. Well, quite a few. The things that stand out are using the actual body terms for the body parts, because I feel with young children it’s so easy to want to use cutesy names and not the actual correct name. That’s something.
Then the consent thing is so huge. It’s really hard as a parent to ask my son like, “Can I give you a hug?” I feel that sets them up for having boundaries around his own body and to start learning consent. I asked him like, “Hey, can I give you a hug?” Sometimes he says no. That’s one of the things that I really got. Those two things really stand out about how to teach a kid consent.
[0:10:12.1] FEATHER BERKOWER: I actually encourage parents to celebrate when their child says, “No, I don’t want to hug you,” to grandma, to grandpa, to the adults around the child. Usually, all the adults get their knickers twisted up when a child says no to that.
What’s happening when your child says, “No, mommy. I don’t want to hug,” is you are allowing him to choose when he receives and gives affection and truly to be the boss of his body. That’s modeling for him the bigger picture, because if someone else who is unsafe tries to touch him in a way that is uncomfortable, or is sexual abuse, then he has the practice and the knowledge that he is allowed to do that.
Kids who do not know that they have refusal skills will not use them, because they don’t have them. This is a biggie in the work that I do and all prevention, people who start to teach this is that so much of the time, families want their children to respect and be polite to relatives and use their bodies to show that politeness and that is one of the biggest vulnerabilities that a sex offender looks for.
[0:11:25.5] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Yeah, that reminds me of – Well, there’s this podcast I really like. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it, Feather. It’s called My Favorite Murder. It’s silly, but they have this saying and it’s F politeness. It actually empowers women and people to forego the ideas of being polite in an effort to really trust their gut and say like, “This isn’t a situation where I need to be polite here. This is a situation where I need to stand up and trust my gut.”
[0:11:53.2] AMY MOORE: And be safe.
[0:11:54.1] ANNA NEWELL JONES: And be safe. Yeah, exactly.
[0:11:55.8] FEATHER BERKOWER: The way you teach that to a five-year-old, because my guess is all three of you want your kids to be polite and have manners and follow rules. Most people want that. It doesn’t mean you can’t teach manners and politeness, but it’s just super important to give children from young ages an exception to the obey authority rule.
That when you’re teaching and you can do that through what if games, like teaching a child yes, they listen to the teacher when the teacher says, “Do your spelling words.” How you can present it is what if your teacher asked you to sit at your desk and do your spelling work? You guys answer, what should your child do?
[0:12:35.8] AMY MOORE: Let’s do the spelling work. Work on spelling.
[0:12:39.7] FEATHER BERKOWER: Right. What if your babysitter and this is how you can present it to a child, what if your babysitter says, “Why don’t you brush your teeth and get ready for bed?” What should you do?
[0:12:48.3] AMY MOORE: Brush your teeth and get ready for bed.
[0:12:50.4] FEATHER BERKOWER: Right. What if your babysitter says, “Let’s get naked and roll around in bed together before you go to sleep.” What should you do?
[0:12:56.7] AMY MOORE: No.
[0:12:58.5] FEATHER BERKOWER: No. Say no and go and –
[0:13:00.9] AMY MOORE: Tell someone.
[0:13:02.0] FEATHER BERKOWER: Tell. How does a child know the difference between saying no to brushing teeth and rolling around naked in a bed if all a parent ever teaches is you listen to the babysitter, she’s the boss, listen to the teacher, she’s in charge.
What I recommend is if you’re so inclined to tell your child to listen and follow rules and do what the adult says, because the adult says you don’t, then if you truly want to reduce the risk of sex abuse, you must give them an exception.
[0:13:32.8] ANNA NEWELL JONES: That’s so good.
[0:13:32.7] FEATHER BERKOWER: Yes, you listen to the teacher. Yes, you listen to grandpa. Except and the exception is except if your body safety rules get broken and we can talk about what those are. Or if anyone ever asks you to do anything unsafe, you have my permission to say no and go and tell.
Now do anything safe is maybe a large concept, so get specific with kids. Asks you to touch private parts, asks you to look at naked pictures on a computer, asks you to steal, cheat on a test, lie. It’s not just about sex abuse.
[0:14:08.7] ANNA NEWELL JONES: That’s so good.
[0:14:09.3] AMY MOORE: Yeah. Yeah. You bring it all in. Yeah.
[0:14:11.9] FEATHER BERKOWER: Right. You weave it all in.
[0:14:13.9] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Something else that really stood out about your book just as we’ve been talking is the idea of having no secrets.
[0:14:20.7] AMY MOORE: Oh, yes. It’s a huge thing in my family.
[0:14:22.4] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Instead, calling a surprise, right? Can you tell us a little bit about that, Feather?
[0:14:28.4] FEATHER BERKOWER: Yeah. Older youth who sexually abuse and adults who sexually abuse often use “innocent-like secrets” in the beginning to test a child’s willingness to keep a secret.
The way that sometimes begins is through language like, “Let’s eat a bowl of ice cream, but not tell your mommy, because she’ll get really mad, you’re not allowed.” The child keeps the secret, because the child wants the ice cream and the child really likes this person. Most people who sexually abuse children, the child knows and the parent knows, loves and trust. We’re not talking about strangers here.
The child is super excited they get to eat the ice cream. The next time the babysitter comes and says, “Let’s stay up late past your bedtime. Don’t tell your dad.” This is all what we call grooming, okay. Grooming around secrets. Kid loves the fact that they get to stay up late. Next time, it’s about looking at funny pictures on the computer. These secrets escalate over time, until the person believes the child is a willing part of the secret-keeping. After they are confident the child will keep the secret, then it moves into more sexual touch around keeping secrets.
What’s so important to teach children is that we don’t have secrets in our family, and to teach them the difference between a secret and a surprise. You can start that around age 4. With older children, it’s confidentiality versus secrecy. Secrets are things that somebody asks you never ever to tell, which makes kids sometimes feel really worried and scared and nervous and feeling which we call intuition or the gut feeling.
Surprises are things like gifts and surprise parties, presents under the tree, holidays, etc., and those we can keep. That’s where we begin our education with kids around secrets and surprises.
The other thing that’s important to say around this is sometimes unknowingly, innocent well-meaning adults ask kids to keep innocent secrets, like grandparents, like parents with another parent, or a child with their sibling. You give me examples. Can you guys give me an example? Have you ever asked a child to keep an innocent secret? Not a surprise, but an innocent secret from another adult. What would be an example?
[0:16:54.6] AMY MOORE: Well, I mean, I know of definitely the staying up late, the older – grandparents with their spoiling the kids. Going against all the rules to have fun, or to make light of – or not make – just to have fun in their time. I know that it’s been under the umbrella of like, “Don’t tell your mom.”
[0:17:19.2] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Or candy.
[0:17:20.5] AMY MOORE: Yeah, because we’re going to – “I know she’s not real excited about you staying up late and eating all the sugar. This’ll be our fun time or whatever.”
[0:17:29.8] ANNA NEWELL JONES: This will be our little secret.
[0:17:30.7] FEATHER BERKOWER: “Don’t tell mommy that we stayed up late and we ate candy.” One more, don’t tell somebody else that one. Don’t tell –
[0:17:39.4] ERIN LINEHAN: Oh, I had a situation with a friend that she had recently got married. The stepdad was trying to create a relationship with a pre-adolescent boy. I don’t know what they were going to do, but they were like, “Hey, let’s go do this and let’s not tell your mom.” Then my friend found out that this was happening. It was very benign and innocent, but my friend, I think that she took her to your workshop. She was like, “We don’t have secrets! We don’t have secrets!”
She was then telling this whole story and it was like – as you’re talking all of this language it’s like, oh, this is where it came from, because I’ve heard all this stuff before. You got a good reach, Feather. Good.
[0:18:23.1] FEATHER BERKOWER: Thank you. Don’t tell mom we had candy. Don’t tell dad we went shopping and bought shoes. Don’t tell mommy we ate chocolate before breakfast, all these kinds of secrets. Why do you think adults ask kids to keep a “innocent secret” like that? What are they trying to do?
[0:18:39.4] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Bond with the kid.
[0:18:40.5] AMY MOORE: Bond.
[0:18:41.3] FEATHER BERKOWER: Bond. What else?
[0:18:41.9] AMY MOORE: Make them feel special.
[0:18:44.7] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Create a fun situation of an environment.
[0:18:48.2] FEATHER BERKOWER: Why else would a mom say to her partner, “Don’t’ tell daddy that we bought shoes at the store, or we crashed the car.”
[0:18:56.3] ERIN LINEHAN: Because she was trying to cover it up for herself.
[0:18:58.4] FEATHER BERKOWER: Right. What are we asking the child to do?
[0:19:01.1] ERIN LINEHAN: Lie.
[0:19:02.4] FEATHER BERKOWER: Lie and keep –
[0:19:03.2] ERIN LINEHAN: Secrets.
[0:19:04.1] FEATHER BERKOWER: Who is the burden on?
[0:19:05.6] ERIN LINEHAN: Kids.
[0:19:07.1] FEATHER BERKOWER: Do you see the problem there? That’s what a sex-offender takes advantage of. That’s the whole explanation of why we have to ask kids. It’s too confusing for them, to be inconsistent, so we teach them we don’t keep secrets. We can keep surprises.
The offenders that I speak with tell me they – everything we’ve talked about so far in this call, they look for. They look for the kid who keep secrets. They look for the child who is taught they must obey authority. They look for kids whose parents are not having child sex abuse prevention on their radar. They don’t know about body safety. They don’t use the correct terminology for genitals. This is what I mean by create an environment for children that minimize risk.
When we’re doing all these things and we’ve already jumped into the body safety rules here without calling them body safety rules for your listeners, but so far, some of these are considered body safety rules.
[0:20:05.6] AMY MOORE: Yeah. Let’s keep going with that a bit. I’m trying to remember from the workshop, I came home with a number of body safety rules. One that really stood out to me was treating your mouth like a private part. Yeah.
[0:20:22.9] FEATHER BERKOWER: Yeah. We teach children from really young ages, no one’s allowed to touch the private areas of your body. I use the umbrella term ‘private areas’ in my workshops, which is an acceptable term. It’s super important to tell kids that means your vagina, your vulva, your testicles, your penis, your buttocks, your anus, your nipples, your mouth. The mouth is included, because sexual organs are put into children’s mouths. I know that’s graphic and hard for people to hear, but that’s why we include the mouth in can be a private area. Yeah.
The body safety rules and no one’s allowed to touch the private areas of your body. You don’t touch other people’s private parts. You can touch your own private areas when you’re in private. Then you begin to teach children what private means, when they’re by themselves, or in a bathroom, or in their bed. It’s perfectly fine when they’re not with other people and exposing their genitals.
Those bodies safety rules are applicable for a four-year-old as they are for a 14-year-old, because the truth is that it’s actually not true that no one’s ever allowed to touch your private parts. That conversation changes as kids develop and grow. At 14, the body safety will be no one’s allowed to touch the private areas of your body without your permission and you don’t touch others without their permission. The concept remains the same. Those are the start of the three body safety touching rules.
Then there’s the rule of secrets. We don’t keep secrets. We have surprises. Other rules, I suggest we touched on earlier around allowing children to choose if and when and whom they give hugs and kisses to and receive them from. That’s a two-way street. They need permission from their friends and other people to give hugs as well, because some children are really affectionate and they’ll run up to their friends and hug and squeeze and smooch and their friend might not feel comfortable with that. The rule about everybody is the boss of their own body and gets to choose hugs and kisses is a two-way street. Does that make sense?
[0:22:39.2] AMY MOORE: Yes. Yeah. Absolutely.
[0:22:40.6] ANNA NEWELL JONES: That brings up a question. I was talking to some friends and family members and just asking them. I told them and I was like, “I’m so excited to talk to Feather.” They all know about your book and stuff. I’m like, “Do you have any questions that we have to ask?”
The question was brought up about just that very thing; a very affectionate child who’s loving and full of life. There is a boundary that’s getting crossed with this child being very affectionate in particular to adult males. What would you say to that person as a parent? The concern is not wanting to squash her liveliness, or her love, or her spirit.
[0:23:28.1] FEATHER BERKOWER: Absolutely. To me, really it doesn’t matter if it’s a male or a female that’s being affectionate with, because men and women both can sexually abuse children. I understand the parents’ concern about adult males. What I would say to her is the same thing I just said, which is it’s a perfect teachable moment to teach your child that they are the boss of their own body, and so is everybody else.
Before this child runs up and sits on someone’s lap, or starts to hug and kiss, they need to make sure that person is okay with it. It might feel stilted and awkward, but that’s what adolescents say when they become sexual. I don’t want to have to ask every minute if I have to – if I can now kiss, or touch. Actually, that’s what keeps us all safe. If we can normalize the conversation, we can start this at three and four-years-old. I don’t think it needs to be a big deal for the parent and absolutely not squash this child’s love and affection. You don’t have to do that. It’s just about boundaries.
[0:24:34.6] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Yeah. Okay. That’s so good, Feather.
[0:24:37.3] AMY MOORE: One thing that is interesting in that scenario, Anna, is also again, thinking about it in terms of the adult’s responsibility. It just made me think of well, I wonder if also, it’s just as important for that adult to have an adult conversation reminding that adult like, “Hey, here’s our body rules.” Frankly, the child is the boss of the child’s body and you’re the boss of your body. As much as that adult can also model the boundary and just –
[0:25:12.7] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Well, so it’s interesting. I have been in the position where I’m the recipient of a child that’s not mine being very overly affectionate to me. It’s hard when you’re not necessarily in the position as a parent to be like, “Back off, kid.” I mean, what would you say in that situation to the kid when it’s like, you’re not necessarily in the position of I don’t know.
[0:25:40.1] FEATHER BERKOWER: Do you mean if a child is hugging and being affectionate with you –
[0:25:42.7] ANNA NEWELL JONES: All up your business and you’re like, “Uh, back off, kid.” What do you –
[0:25:47.5] FEATHER BERKOWER: How old is the child?
[0:25:50.5] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Like five, six.
[0:25:52.0] FEATHER BERKOWER: Okay. How about if you squatted down and got to their level and said, “It’s so nice to see you and it looks you’re so happy right now. You know what? Just say how you feel? How about we shake hands, or how about a high-five, or how about a fist-bump? Because I actually don’t want to hug right now.” We risk the child having hurt feelings, but I think it’s the delivery.
Because the truth is if you are uncomfortable, you get to model for a child saying, “I am uncomfortable.” It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It doesn’t mean you’re not lovable. It doesn’t mean you did a bad thing, but let’s say hello this way instead.
[0:26:34.3] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Okay. Then if they keep doing it, do you just keep having that conversation?
[0:26:38.1] FEATHER BERKOWER: Yeah. You talk about body safety rules. You introduce the concept. I mean, hopefully the parent is doing that anyway. I mean, if the child doesn’t have boundaries and can’t be redirected, you need to look at that probably in a different light like, why? What’s going on with this child? What are they needing and they’re not getting? Here’s the perfect opportunity to segue into this prevention team that I teach about in my workshop.
[0:27:02.3] AMY MOORE: Great.
[0:27:03.7] FEATHER BERKOWER: Yeah. You have an opportunity right there to share how you teach your child body safety rules and what that means and asking that parent if they ever have discussed these topics with their child. You approach it in a really kind and informative way, not where you’re coming off as a know-it-all, or judgmental, or anything like that, because nobody wants to be in that situation.
In the work that I do, I teach parents and youth professionals everything we’ve just talked about; the facts about child sex abuse, how it happens from grooming, how a person gets to know a child and their family if the offender is not the parent, how they groom the child, how they build these friendships, and then the body safety rules.
The most important part for prevention is now taking all of that knowledge around grooming, around age-appropriate sex behavior and around those body safety rules and sharing that with all of your caregivers. I mean, every person that you leave your child in the care of and you drive away from.
That means having conversations with your kid’s playdate parents, their coaches, gymnastics teachers, their school teachers, nannies, babysitters, your own family members, older youth who might babysit, anyone who’s – if you imagine your kids in the middle and then around your child, there’s a circle of adults and older youth who care for your kids. That’s your prevention team. You handpick who those people are.
This is a concept. It’s a concept that takes a lot of energy and a lot of commitment, but it’s the way we can prevent this. I speak with sex offenders about this regularly. What I mean by that is I ask them. I ask some questions like, what would you do if a parent of the child you sexually abused would have discussed secrets with you before you abused? Or discussed no touching rules, or privacy, or the choice for hugs and kisses, what would you have done? Most of these guys that I meet with tell me they would have gone the other direction.
I know you guys have my conversation starter cards with you and that’s a summary on those cards of how to get these conversations started with other parents, which quite frankly, parents are terrified to do. In my workshops of 50, 60, 80 people that are sitting there, I can see them not breathing when I’m suggesting having a conversation. I will say over and over and that we actually haven’t discussed this in this call is, are you willing to feel a little uncomfortable by having these conversations so your child never has to?
[0:29:55.8] ANNA NEWELL JONES: That’s so good.
[0:29:56.2] FEATHER BERKOWER: I mean, never have to live it.
[0:29:57.9] ANNA NEWELL JONES: That’s so good. Do you think it’s that uncomfortableness, or the fear of feeling awkward? Do you think that’s the reason why adults don’t act on the red flag, or hair standing up on their arms? If they get a weird vibe and they – do think that’s why they’re not acting on it?
[0:30:19.4] FEATHER BERKOWER: Yeah. Don’t we all do that? I mean, yes. I think that people are afraid to accuse, they’re afraid to offend, they’re afraid to get it wrong. I always say, “What if you’re right?” Offenders tell me that they are purposefully looking for the parent who has a gut feeling, because they know when you do, and turns the other way because they’re too worried about speaking up.
I will tell you that people who sexually abuse children, and they have a pattern of this, are more afraid of you than you are of them. They are terrified for you to say, “You know what? In our family, we don’t tickle. Could you please stop?” Which in my opinion, you guys tell me that’s not offensive, that’s not accusatory and that’s not off-putting. Do you agree, you all, that you have the right to say to someone, “Hey, I feel really uncomfortable with the way you’re tickling my child? We have a rule in our home that we don’t tickle, or we have a rule in our home that doors stay open, or my child’s allowed to choose kisses.”
When you see these things happening, if you ever do and we don’t say anything to them, that’s giving a green light to that person to push the boundary. This is the most fascinating part of sitting with sex offenders and talking with them. Building this prevention team to me is the crux of prevention. It’s making a commitment in your parenting that you will have a conversation no matter how much your heart is pounding and your palms are sweating that you will kindly and proactively say to your caregivers, “This is not personal. We do this with everyone. I’d love to talk to you about these boundaries in our home and learn the boundaries in your home.”
Let’s say if it’s a playdate, or if it’s a gymnastic school, you tell me, do you have the right to ask the administration of gymnastics or a camp what their child sex abuse prevention policies are to keep kids safe? Do you have that right?
[0:32:22.4] AMY MOORE: Yes. Yes.
[0:32:24.2] FEATHER BERKOWER: You have not only the right, but the responsibility to do it on behalf of your kid. That admin has – anyone in the business of youth has a responsibility to have those policies in place. This is after 30 years of doing this work, we lock offenders up and that is not prevention. Prevention is talking about it. It’s talking about it and normalizing the conversation.
[0:32:51.4] AMY MOORE: Yes.
[0:32:52.3] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Wow. This is all so good, Feather.
[0:32:54.2] AMY MOORE: It’s so good.
[0:32:56.3] ANNA NEWELL JONES: So helpful.
[0:32:56.7] AMY MOORE: It really is. I have to say so, unfortunately, I forgot my conversation starter cards at home. I know, but I have used them. I ordered the pack and I’ve used them mostly with nannies, or babysitters that I’ve hired. I feel just in full transparency, that to me is the easier conversation, because I’m hiring them. Generally, they’ve been younger, I guess too. I feel less intimidated. My heart doesn’t pound as hard, because it’s like, “Listen, you’re taking care of my babies. Here are the rules and blah, blah, blah.”
The conversation cards were very helpful with even just breaking that initial ice. I had this card and I was like, “Oh, I just want to – I want to show you something. These are the body safety rules in our family. This is something that I show. I show these cards to all caregivers.” It helped to just ease, bring a little bit more ease to that conversation.
[0:34:09.5] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Yeah. I love that you’re telling us exactly what you said too, because I feel it’s so that awkward feeling that we talked about of why parents and caregivers wouldn’t connect to that gut instinct, or ignore that gut instinct is because it’s like, what are the words that I say around this? Feather, you having this resource –
[0:34:31.7] FEATHER BERKOWER: Sorry, I interrupted –
[0:34:33.1] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Or you having this resource is so valuable to be like, here are the words to use and then you acting it out, Amy.
[0:34:40.0] AMY MOORE: Oh, thank you. Would like me to do another one? Just kidding.
[0:34:45.6] FEATHER BERKOWER: On the card, basically it has four body safety rules. It has four facts about sex abuse and health, four asks of what you’re asking. Around the language, how would – I mean, people struggle so much with what do you say around body safety, but what would you say if you were dropping your child off on a playdate and your child were allergic to peanuts? What would you say?
[0:35:10.8] AMY MOORE: Well, interesting. Yeah. Interestingly enough, that one’s – and parents have said, “I brought snacks, because I don’t want to put you out of – I don’t want to make you have to do something special, but little Joey does have a severe peanut allergy. I just packed him a snack in case. Generally, he’s really good about knowing that he can’t eat nuts.”
[0:35:32.6] FEATHER BERKOWER: Now would your heart pound to say that?
[0:35:34.9] AMY MOORE: No. No.
[0:35:36.2] FEATHER BERKOWER: Why does it pound to say we don’t have secrets in our family and Lily is the boss of her body. What’s the difference?
[0:35:43.9] ANNA NEWELL JONES: I think, partly that we don’t talk about it.
[0:35:46.8] FEATHER BERKOWER: Yeah, so let’s talk about it.
[0:35:48.2] AMY MOORE: As a culture.
[0:35:49.4] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Yeah. It’s just like, “Uh.”
[0:35:50.7] ERIN LINEHAN: Well also, these conversations seem to have them way beforehand and prevention, like this is just what I talk to people about, instead of waiting for you to have a feeling that something happened. That’s a way easier conversation than this is we have body safety rules and this is how we go about it. Rather than, “I think you sexually abused my kid.”
[0:36:08.1] AMY MOORE: I think that’s the thing is that it is like, I feel like, “Oh, my God. I’m not accusing you of being a sexual abuser, but I just need to tell you these are our body safety rules.” I think that’s also why it’s way harder to have that conversation than a peanut conversation, because I feel it’s so easy that someone could be like, “What the hell? Why are you even telling me this?”
[0:36:34.6] FEATHER BERKOWER: Okay, let’s play it out. Let’s lay it out in terms of a playdate, because that’s the one where it seems people are most nervous. Is that true? I mean, I’ve been more nervous with that than you are with the babysitter and with the school, etc.
Let’s say, I say to Amy and I don’t know your child’s name. I’m going to make up a name. We’re not best friends and we’re not strangers. We were hanging out, but maybe on the schoolyard volunteering, or in the classroom, or the parking lot, or whatever. I say to you, “Hey, Amy. Lily and Sammy had become such great friends in first grade and all Lily ever does is ask if Sammy can come over on a playdate. We’d love to have Sammy over next Wednesday. Would you like to drop them off and have a playdate? Lily would love that.”
Okay, so I’m encouraging parents just like you would say, “Here’s my car seat. Sammy is allergic to peanuts. What time should I pick him up?” Whatever is important to you to begin a conversation and you don’t even have to jump in and start with body safety rules, but to make this a priority before you send your child to someone else’s home, or have them in your home. One of the three of you, how might you break the ice? Eventually, I’ll give some language here.
[0:37:51.0] ANNA NEWELL JONES: I almost think just calling out the awkwardness, like –
[0:37:54.4] AMY MOORE: Exactly.
[0:37:54.9] ANNA NEWELL JONES: “Hey, this is super awkward, but this is something we do. I do it with everybody. These are our rules.”
[0:38:00.7] AMY MOORE: We have body safety rules in our home.
[0:38:02.9] ERIN LINEHAN: Or Feather is a badass, maybe?
[0:38:06.2] FEATHER BERKOWER: I say, and I’m the parent and I’m in there with you on the playground and you say, “Okay, well we have body safety rules in our home.” I say, “What’s that?”
[0:38:14.1] AMY MOORE: Ah! Well, honestly I always talk about you, so I’m like, “Oh, have you heard of Feather Berkower? Because I went to this workshop.” It is amazing to me how many people – I mean, I know you’re in the Denver Boulder area and that’s where you give your workshops, but your name I feel is very well-known.
Many families or moms that I have talked to they’ll be like, “Oh, yeah. I know Feather.” I’ll say, “Well, I believe in what she says and we’ve taken a lot of those suggest – or her suggestions so and made them our own. My kids have body safety rules, which basically means they are the boss of their bodies. They’re allowed to say no if they’re uncomfortable, but then also they’re the only ones who can touch their bodies. We also have a no clothes off playdate, or play time rule. What else? Oh, play with doors open.” I think that’s generally –
[0:39:09.4] FEATHER BERKOWER: All that is perfect. Thank you for tooting my horn.
[0:39:13.2] AMY MOORE: Yeah, it’s true.
[0:39:15.2] FEATHER BERKOWER: What if the person have never heard of Parenting Safe Children? Let me let me propose this to you, and all that’s great. Those are the body safety rules you’re eventually going to get to. The first the first thing I want to say is this is a two-way street and it’s not about an interrogation. It’s about a conversation. Let’s say you’ve said to me, “Hey, Feather. Would you like to bring Lily over to play next week with Sammy? We would love to have her.” Okay, you’re asking me. Tell me how this sounds, to make your heart pound less.
What if I said something like, “Well, thank you so much Amy for inviting Lily over. She’s so excited to come. She talks about Sammy all the time also.” We’ve never had a play date before and Lily’s never been to your house, Sammy’s never been to our house. I was wondering if before the kids had a playdate, you would be willing to talk about some of the rules in your home, so I can make sure Lily can follow them.
You can learn some of the rules in our home and how we do playdates. I can get to know what’s important to you and vice versa and we can make sure the kids are safe. Would you be willing to talk about some of those topics?
[0:40:22.5] ANNA NEWELL JONES: That’s good.
[0:40:23.6] FEATHER BERKOWER: Does that feel offensive?
[0:40:25.6] AMY MOORE: No.
[0:40:26.8] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Well, especially because you’re asking them first about their rules, so then of course, they’re going to reciprocate and be like, “Well, what are yours?”
[0:40:35.6] AMY MOORE: Right.
[0:40:35.8] FEATHER BERKOWER: If someone says to you, “Man, you’re high-maintenance, or what are you talking about? Or no, I’m not interested in so many words.” Then you have just screened whether this person is part of your prevention team or not. That’s where it gets hard to say, “You know what? Thank you for the invitation, but I’m not comfortable.” If the person says, “No, I don’t want it. No, this is not important to me, or patronizes,” which most people won’t if you approach it that way.
If now Amy says to me, “Sure, that sounds great. What did you have in mind?” I say, “Well, first of all, we do this with everyone. Lily right now is going through a stage where she’s potty training and she loves to rip her clothes off and run around naked, so would you do your best to help me keep her clothes on? Because she loves to take them off.” Does that sound offensive?
[0:41:26.0] AMY MOORE: No.
[0:41:27.9] FEATHER BERKOWER: Okay. Then I might say, “When Sammy comes to my home, is there anything that you need me to know about him?” Then we don’t have secrets in our home and how about in your home with doors open and screen time? You’re just weaving it all in, bicycle helmets, car seats. It becomes a conversation, instead of an interrogation.
That’s important to have with if you have the time and the wherewithal of the family members, and to get to know people and the older kids that might be there.
[0:41:57.0] AMY MOORE: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and I think too, because I remember one thing I also remember from the workshop is you might send Sammy over for a playdate, but then you don’t know who else, and you might know Sammy’s mom from the playground, but who else is in the house? I feel if you’re able to have that conversation, then you can learn about so much more about who’s in the house during the playdate –
[0:42:22.8] FEATHER BERKOWER: Exactly.
[0:42:23.9] AMY MOORE: Yeah.
[0:42:24.3] FEATHER BERKOWER: Or the sleepover. I mean, at sleepover it’s so important to learn the sleeping arrangements. These conversations can be the same approach with the youth organizations that you leave your kids and you sign your kids up all with their schools, with their teachers, because here’s in summary of all of this. If you are sharing proactively these body safety rules with your caregivers and the people you leave your kids with, what if you are speaking with someone who has a sexual behavior problem with kids and you’re letting them know that your child doesn’t have secrets and we have body safety rules and doors open, or whatever you’re discussing, are you on our team?
What if this person is grooming you and your child? What do you think might happen if that nanny sitting on the couch across from you when you’re interviewing, or whomever it is, what might happen if you’re discussing sex abuse of kids?
[0:43:18.2] AMY MOORE: Well, I definitely don’t think they would want to work with my kids or me.
[0:43:23.0] FEATHER BERKOWER: That’s the point, right? I can’t promise that to anyone, but that is the concept that I’m trying to educate, that that’s how we deter older youth and adult people who sexually abuse kids.
Because from all of these people I’ve spoken to, they tell me the moment they get a whiff of you having an inkling of their behavior that makes you uncomfortable and you begin to pull back, or speak about it, they get scared. Some offenders absolutely will push harder and become more tricky, but for the most part they need an easy victim.
This includes for any listeners – incest is a huge piece of sexual abuse. This occurs in families as well, against the other parent, or extended family members. All of this grooming we’re talking about, children are chosen specifically for vulnerabilities, even if it’s all the children in the family. Yeah.
[0:44:28.0] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Feather, I have a question. Talking about connecting to that gut feeling or that instinct that we have that we might deny because it’s awkward or uncomfortable, can you tell us what some of the red flags are that people might be ignoring, generally speaking?
[0:44:42.7] FEATHER BERKOWER: Yes. Yeah. I mean, every one of us on this call I’m sure has done this in our life. We all do it. We are given – we all have intuition and a gut feeling and it’s our biggest safety radar, whether it’s about sex abuse or not. When something is off, when you question something, when something just doesn’t feel right, unfortunately, so much of the time we turn away from it and later we say, “I had a feeling.” When there’s nothing wrong, that feeling doesn’t exist, doesn’t come up, because it’s a natural human instinct to give us a red flag when something’s off.
When it comes to children, it’s a huge disservice not to listen to it. We don’t listen for all the reasons we’ve discussed so far, offending people. It’s really important to teach children to listen to their own, because they have it from little teeny ages. There’s a really great book I recommend by Gavin de Becker called Protecting the Gift or The Gift of Fear. Both of his books are phenomenal and it’s all about instinct.
That doesn’t mean we have to live in fear. That’s not what that’s about it. It’ about when something doesn’t feel right. You’re with your child at a swimming class and something just doesn’t feel right with another child or with the instructor. Parents do not need to explain why and have a reason.
Your biggest reason is you just – there’s something off. At that point, you get to either say something, or make choices on behalf of your child. If your child says something like, “I’m not comfortable with this person.” We say, “Oh, that’s silly, or that person loves you.” Where instead of, “Tell me more. What’s your discomfort?” We’re shutting that child instinct down, just like we shut our own down.
[0:46:43.4] ANNA NEWELL JONES: That brings up another question I have. False reporting, is that something – how common is that?
[0:46:49.8] FEATHER BERKOWER: What do you guys think?
[0:46:50.9] ANNA NEWELL JONES: I don’t think it’s common at all.
[0:46:52.3] AMY MOORE: False reporting?
[0:46:53.5] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Yeah. A kid saying to the parent like, “Someone touched me inappropriately, or I just don’t like this person,” or something like that. I don’t think it’s coming at all.
[0:47:05.8] FEATHER BERKOWER: Yeah. Young children cannot fabricate details about sex.
[0:47:11.0] AMY MOORE: Because they wouldn’t know otherwise, right?
[0:47:13.6] FEATHER BERKOWER: Acts that they don’t know about. Teenagers absolutely can, but there’s a very low motive, because there’s all kinds of really unfortunate things happen when kids do tell about sex abuse. The way children typically lie about sexual abuse is by saying it didn’t happen when it did, because they want to protect the people they love. It’s rare for a child to just fabricate. If a child does, that child is calling out for help and needs attention.
Sometimes they will change the story to say, “This person touched me versus this person,” because they’re so afraid to tell the truth about who really did it, because it’s someone they love. Fabrication is very uncommon. It can happen, but it rarely does.
[0:48:05.7] AMY MOORE: Wow. This is so many good nuggets. We usually end our podcast with a challenge, or a little nugget. We have so many of them, I think that we could leave our audience.
[0:48:18.7] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Well Feather, I wanted to ask you too, is there anything that we should have asked you about that we didn’t?
[0:48:23.4] AMY MOORE: Good question, Anna.
[0:48:25.5] FEATHER BERKOWER: There’s so much, but [inaudible 0:48:26.4]. Yeah, I think one other topic we really didn’t touch on that people can get in my book, or they can – the workshops that I present in Boulder, Denver area are available online for people who live outside of Colorado, all over the world. It’s the same exact workshop as my workshop with some materials. Super affordable. Parentssafechildren.com, just register for the workshop.
One area is to talk about age-appropriate sexual behavior in children versus concerning acting out behavior, because there is a direct link between children who are properly educated and nurtured in their sexual development and given information about their own bodies, other people’s bodies and about sex from the moment they ask and even before they ask, because it’s the parents’ responsibility to keep kids safe. That means giving them correct information. There’s a direct link between kids who don’t get that and sex abuse.
I think it’s really important to talk about that topic next time if we do this again, and pornography, because yeah, the average age of that children are exposed to porn on the device is between 8 and 11-years-old. Yeah, we can talk about that next time. All that information you can find on my website also.
[0:49:48.5] AMY MOORE: I have to say to the book list, the book list. I bought, I mean, so many of the books on there about how to have the conversations with young kids, however old, all ages, to start sex education basically with your own kids. I think all those resources are super helpful. Definitely go to the website and check that out.
Before we wrap this up officially, Feather, Anna has this thing that she will ask everybody who comes on our show a random, hopefully goofy and completely unrelated questions.
[0:50:27.3] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Just for fun.
[0:50:28.2] AMY MOORE: Just for fun.
[0:50:29.2] ANNA NEWELL JONES: To end on a light note.
[0:50:30.3] AMY MOORE: Yes.
[0:50:30.7] FEATHER BERKOWER: Okay.
[0:50:32.1] ANNA NEWELL JONES: It’s nothing you have to study for.
[0:50:34.1] ERIN LINEHAN: Are you okay with the question?
[0:50:36.3] FEATHER BERKOWER: Be easy on me.
[0:50:37.5] ERIN LINEHAN: All right.
[0:50:37.8] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Okay. Are you ready? Okay, would you rather eat a small can of cat food, or would you rather eat two rotten tomatoes?
[0:50:44.7] ERIN LINEHAN: Oh, my God, Anna.
[0:50:47.5] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Erin always says this like, “What?”
[0:50:48.1] ERIN LINEHAN: Always. Always turn my nose up when I’m like, “Where did you get this, Anna?”
[0:50:51.2] AMY MOORE: That’s a hard one.
[0:50:54.0] FEATHER BERKOWER: Well, I don’t eat tomatoes because I don’t eat lectins and if anyone knows what that is. Between the two, definitely the tomato.
[0:51:06.8] AMY MOORE: That’s a lot.
[0:51:07.5] ERIN LINEHAN: There you go.
[0:51:08.5] AMY MOORE: All right. All right. Well Feather, thank you again. Thank you, thank you so much for all the work that you’re doing.
[0:51:13.6] ERIN LINEHAN: Thank you very much.
[0:51:15.1] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Yeah, thank you.
[0:51:17.3] AMY MOORE: Thanks on behalf of all the children out there and all the parents. I mean, really, truly.
[0:51:21.0] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Oh, my gosh. So much practical info and advice. It’s totally a game-changer.
[0:51:29.1] FEATHER BERKOWER: I’m so glad. I’m so glad it’s valuable. Thanks for thinking of me and having me join you guys.
[0:51:35.7] AMY MOORE: Yeah, it was great. Thanks again and –
[0:51:37.7] ERIN LINEHAN: Thank you, Feather, so much.
[0:51:38.3] AMY MOORE: — we’ll be in touch hopefully, to schedule another one.
[0:51:40.9] FEATHER BERKOWER: Okay.
[0:51:42.3] AMY MOORE: All right.
[0:51:42.6] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Thank you.
[0:51:43.3] AMY MOORE: Thank you. Have a great day.
[0:51:43.5] FEATHER BERKOWER: All right. Bye.
[0:51:44.7] ERIN LINEHAN: Thanks, Feather. Bye-bye.
[0:51:45.5] FEATHER BERKOWER: You too. Bye-bye.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:51:48.2] ANNA NEWELL JONES: Okay. We talk about connection. That’s what our deal is here. We have a six-step roadmap for instant connection. You can get that at connectionroadmap.com. It will give you the hook-up on what to do to get instantly connected with people in this world.
[0:52:10.1] AMY MOORE: Thanks for listening. You can find more about this episode and a way to connect to the community at lessalonepodcast.com. If you like us, don’t forget to subscribe and be sure to leave a review. It helps other people find us and could be just what they need.