Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Perpetuating the Santa Myth

At this time of the year some parents begin hyperventilating about how to answer the question that all children between the ages of around 6-8 years start pondering:
"Is Santa Claus real?"
My response is this:
"Tell your kids the truth!"
Why would I say that? Aren't I destroying the dreams of children? Am I becoming some kind of Grinch? Surely that's cruel to destroy their faith in the mythical fat man who commands flying reindeer on his annual skyhigh worldwide circumnavigation of the globe, dispensing gifts that make children's wishes come true!

Au contraire. I love Christmas, and I love the concept and history (the ancient history) of Saint Nicholas.

But I'm a big believer that our children should be told the truth - when they ask the relevant questions.

What does the research say?

Well, the research doesn't say anything about Santa (that I've seen). But it is instructive around kids and lies. Children seem to have reasonable lie detection abilities by the age of around 4 years. Of course, they have to be looking for the lie. So if they're not questioning Santa, then deception will last until they start wondering.

Research also tells us that when we are on the receiving end of lies, including white lies, that our trust in the liar is undermined (duh).

In spite of this, we still lie!

What should I do?

THE KEY is to stop each time you consider lying and ask "why" you want to lie to your kids. All too often (though not always) lying is seen as a short-cut because we can't be bothered spending the time talking through things with our children. So we lie. We cover it up. We put a band-aid over it.

Over time, those lies will come back to bite us.

Instead, consider these do's and don'ts if you have to break some bad news about Santa (or other life challenges) to your kids:
  • Do make sure you can be fully present with them
  • Do explain things briefly and clearly
  • Do wait patiently, responding to their processing with empathy, honesty, clarity, and patience
  • Do SHUT UP after you've said a bit - and just listen
  • Don't break the news in front of an audience
  • Don't break the news when you're in a hurry
  • Don't expect them to be cool with it
  • Don't overshare!
So how do you break the news?

Try these ideas:

1. Tell them the truth - you're Santa
2. Google the history of Santa and share the inspiring aspects about the history of Saint Nick
3.  Explain that the tradition of Saint Nicholas continues today with parents sharing gifts with their children, and that you'll keep being Santa until they reach a certain age.
4. Talk with your kids about ways that you might play Santa as a family for others in need in your community
5. Remind the kids to keep it quiet! Let other kids enjoy the myth until they require our honesty.

The Final Word 
Kids can know the truth about Santa and still find Christmas fun. My kids have each discovered the truth by asking questions and getting the answers truthfully. Santa still visits them. They still love Christmas.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Keeping Your Children Safe

Some months ago as my eldest daughter walked home from the local shop, she was followed by two men in a white van. She felt unsafe. She pulled out her phone and dialled our number, and as she did so, she walked into the front yard of a stranger’s house and made her way to their front door. She knocked on the door and, as the van drove away, she spoke to me on the phone and explained what had happened. At the same time, the owner of the house opened the door, heard the conversation, and allowed my daughter to remain on the front patio until I arrived (which took about 90 seconds!)

During the past few weeks in the city in which our family lives, there has been a spate of attempted abductions and assaults on children aged around ten and younger. Similar incidents have been reported around Australia with some ending far worse than others.

As a result of these terrible incidents I’ve had numerous media requests to discuss the best way to keep our children safe. These notes are the basis of the comments I’ve made. I recommend you find an evening to sit down and talk with your kids about their safety.

The stats

In Australia in 2010-2011 there were just under 240 000 reports of suspected child abuse and neglect. Authorities were able to gain evidence to confirm close to 40 000 of those cases. Around 35% of those cases were sexual and physical abuse. The remainder were cases of neglect and/or emotional and psychological abuse.

Girls are more than three times as likely to be sexually abused than boys. Boys are more likely to be victims of violent behaviour. And age matters. While all abuse is a travesty, I find it tragic that the most abused group is children under the age of one year old (at a rate of 12 children per 1000). Children aged between one and four years are the next most vulnerable and abused group (at a rate of about 7 in 1000).

Of course, these figures do not tell the whole story. We know that a significant amount of abuse occurs without ever being reported. Around 12% of adult women and close to 5% of adult men in Australia acknowledge having been abused (sexually) as children.

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, sexual abuse is most likely to be perpetrated by someone known to the child. In fact, in close to 90% of cases, the offender is known and trusted. Here’s the breakdown:

  • a male relative (other than the victim’s father or stepfather; 30.2%)
  • a family friend (16.3%)
  • an acquaintance or neighbour (15.6%)
  • another known person (15.3%)
  • or the father or stepfather (13.5%)

The remaining 10% of cases (or thereabouts) are cases where the offender is a stranger.

There is a small gender difference in the data presented above that is noteworthy… the percentage of abuse by strangers is higher for boys than it is for girls, while the percentage of girls abused by people known to them is far higher than it is for boys.

Lastly, the statistics and other research seem to point to something particularly concerning: a large percentage of abuse is spontaneous and unplanned. In other words, a (usually) male friend or relative has an unexpected circumstance presented to him where abuse can occur and for some demented reason, he pursues it. Studies seem to indicate that opportunism is a key factor in abuse occurring.

Stranger Danger – a misnomer?

Keeping the above data in mind, the idea that we should be teaching our children Stranger Danger seems a little odd. Our kids are at greater risk from people we know and trust. Yes, it’s true that some strangers are dangerous. But our kids have to interact with strangers all the time. Sometimes it might be a bus driver or shop assistant. Someone might just feel like chatting with the kids in the park.

To teach our children to beware of all strangers may not only frighten them, but may actually go against them at a time when they might otherwise need that stranger’s help. Black and white rules about stranger danger can be confusing.

Here are five things to teach your children about strangers:

  • Most strangers are good people, but that doesn’t mean we should be too trusting
  • If you are ever approached by a stranger, always check with your parents before doing anything with that stranger
  • If you are going somewhere with a stranger (for some currently unanticipated reason), always stay in public
  • There may be some instances, perhaps if you got lost or needed help, where you need to go to a stranger. If you do need to talk to a stranger, it’s always best to look for a mum with children and ask her for help.
  • If you ever feel unsafe, like a stranger is following you, find another adult and explain what you are scared of. Because most strangers are safe, if you ask for help you’re very likely to get it. But if you are invited into someone’s house, always say no and just stay on the doorstep.

We should also teach a few common sense rules about strangers:

  • If you feel unsafe, move away from strangers
  • If a stranger promises you something really cool, like lollies, games, or butterflies, lizards, snakes, or whatever, say no and move away.
  • If a stranger (or any adult) ever grabs you or touches you in a way that makes you scared, scream the following words: “Stop it! Help! Don’t touch me!” And scream them LOUD!

But what about people we know?

Based on the statistics, the really tricky teaching needs to be around keeping our kids safe from people we know and would prefer to trust. The best things to teach your kids are:

  • My body is mine
  • No one should ever, ever touch the private parts of my body
  • If anyone tries to touch me I should loudly say “Stop it! Help! Don’t touch me!
  • If a person tells me to keep a secret that relates to private parts of my body, I should remember that they’re wrong. I should tell my mum immediately.
  • If a person says anything to me or does anything to me (or my body) that leaves me feeling bad, yucky, or guilty, I should tell my parents – even if I’m scared about it.

Our children are innocent. The people they know and trust should be protecting them. Use these tips to clearly teach your children how to act with strangers and with people they know.

Let me finish with one quick story from many years ago…

When a family friend was a young girl, she told her mum that she had been sexually abused be a relative. The mother listened to every word from her young daughter’s mouth. After taking it all in the mother slapped the girl in the face and warned her never to say anything about that incident again.

Such an attitude cannot be allowed to continue. Our children have a right to protection. Please, keep them safe.

If you are aware of a child who has been abused, visit NAPCAN for help.

Sources: Australian Institute of Family Studies, Australian Institute of Criminology