Three times in recent weeks an uncomfortable topic has come up in conversation with my kids; child molestation. First,my children have heard the drip drip drip of charges in the news against Catholic priests. Secondly, something happened at my kids’ elementary school a few weeks ago that prompted a call to the police. Finally the movie Precious came out on DVD. Child molestation is not an issue my wife and I had planned to address in detail at this moment but now that it has come up, I figured it was time for my 12, 11, and 8 year old to become aware that this issue not only exists but is a topic open for discussion in our house.
I found, however, that the harsh reality that some people feel the need to touch children in a sexual way is almost impossible to explain. When my kids asked the inevitable question, Why?, I really had no words that get at the motivation of a molester. …I can explain how someone might commit suicide or kill another, but I cannot put myself into the shoes of a person who molests a child. Yet I felt I owed them some kind of explanation. The conversation went something like this:
I first asked my kids if they knew why a police car was parked out front of their school the previous week. Of course they did. I wanted them to first describe what they knew about the incident so that I could listen to the words they used and gauge their initial level of understanding. This particular incident involved not an adult but two kids (I am being deliberately vague here because it doesn’t seem right to give specific details of an incident that is being handled by other responsible parties). I asked my children to try to imagine where one of their classmates would get the idea that was so bad that someone else called the police. I suggested there might be two possibilities: the kid had the idea on his own or he got the idea from someone else, perhaps an adult. If the child got the idea on his own and acted on it, then we can’t feel too sorry for him. I described what this child’s life might be like if he gets expelled from school or is called to account for his behavior. However, if the kid got the idea from an adult, I told my kids that the incident might not be entirely the students’ fault after all. Perhaps he was doing to others what an adult had done to him and that our hearts should go out to him. We had no idea what the truth was, but I found it easier to talk about a hypothetical scenario than talking about reality.
That is where the movie Precious comes in. A few weeks ago, we saw an ad for the Precious DVD and my 11-year-old daughter said she wanted to see it. It was already at the top of our Netflix queue and came in the mail not long after its release. My daughter, my mother and I watched it together last weekend. The movie is about a girl in Harlem four years older than my 11-year-old. Precious was twice impregnated by her father and living with an abusive mother. The final wrenching scene in which the mother describes what was going through her head as she watched her boyfriend molest Precious was very tough to watch.
As the end-credits rolled, I asked my daughter what she thought of the movie. She said it was too much for her. I could understand why she said it, but I did not regret letting her see the movie. My wife and I have tended to err on the side of exposing our children to adult issues and then helping them to understand rather than waiting for them to pick up some gossip from other fifth and sixth graders and then correcting their erroneous notions. And now that we know that molestation has affected other kids in our neighborhood, the need for my kids to be aware has only increased.
But my recent experience talking about the issue leads me to believe that child molestation is just too confusing for my children to comprehend or for me to explain coherently. The simplistic talk about ‘private parts’ happened long ago and now isn’t enough for 10 and 11 year olds who are verging on puberty and going to a school where they might see a police car in the parking lot. There is a big difference between ‘awareness’ and ‘understanding’ and when given the opportunity to teach my kids, I stopped at the first because I couldn’t find the words to sufficiently get to the second.