Care and Feeding

I Can’t Quiet My Fears About My Preschooler and Her Privacy

A preschooler at a bathroom door.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mohamed Rasik/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Pornpimon Rodchua/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 2-year-old daughter is starting pre-school/nursery in early August (she will turn 3 in October). This is the first time she will be away from her parents or a relative for an extended time during the day. Though I know the likelihood is extremely low, I have read stories about sex abuse occurring at nurseries, and I have no idea how to talk to my young toddler about this to prevent her from being targeted or victimized! What’s further complicating matters is that the nursery we have chosen says they often help students with potty training (their motto is if you start the potty training at home, we’ll do the rest). And obviously, since she will be using the toilet at school, the teachers will be helping her to wipe and clean herself after. So how can I teach her what is a good vs. inappropriate touch, even in the context of using the bathroom with the teacher’s help? I can’t find anything online with sex abuse prevention tips for toddlers and potty training specifically. Please help!

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— Kinda Scared Mom

Dear Scared,

I found it really beneficial for my boys to have other adults—and peers—reinforcing the potty practices. That’s not to diminish your worry, but to assure this is common for child care facilities, and that this is far more likely (statistically speaking) to be helpful rather than dangerous.

The one thing I have read about how to help you identify abuse of your child is to teach them the correct names for their body parts, so that if you hear them use a different “cute” term, you know someone else taught it to them. You can also explain what you are doing when you wipe her and tell her to say “no” if people do anything differently, though whether this would work really depends on her language skills and comprehension. Those two tips aren’t preventative, but it can make you feel perhaps a little more prepared if something were to happen.

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Talk to the facility director about their safety protocols, so that you feel more comfortable. Child care facilities should have rules for child protection (and if they don’t, talk to them about why they don’t!). Often, they require two adults to be present with any child, or that one-on-one interactions must take place in a fully visible space. They may have bathrooms without closed doors. You can ask for copies of these protocols if you didn’t receive them when you enrolled. You can also ask about how incoming staff are screened and whether they go through a background check. I also highly recommend all parents take a training on how to become familiar with the warning signs of abuse and neglect. There are a lot of resources posted on the Health and Human Services’ Child Welfare Information Gateway. These trainings teach parents (and caregivers) not only what signs of abuse would look like in a child, but also how to identify signs of grooming—what that behavior would look like from a teacher, coach, bus driver, or anyone who regularly interacts with your child or family. When you feel comfortable with your knowledge base and familiar with your child care facility’s practices, I hope you’ll feel a bit more at ease.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My parents were loving and affectionate, but both had pretty damaging attitudes about mental health and behavioral disabilities, which ranged from refusing to talk about them to using negative language and cruel slang to describe people who have them. My sibling and I are both in our 40s, and through a lot of therapy I’m clear on my own depression, and my sibling’s likely learning disabilities, and my mother’s likely depression (neither of which were ever discussed). As you might expect, my sibling and I now both have children with diagnosed learning disabilities and social-emotional challenges—all of whom, luckily, are getting help and support and thriving. But my parents simply cannot make the connection between their grandchildren, who they love, and how they talk about other people with disabilities. I’ve said, plainly, you have grandchildren with disabilities, and they just say, “well, that’s different.” I’m at a loss of how to handle this.

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— We’re Not “Wackos”

Dear WNW,

I think you need to be clear with yourself about what your goal is; do you want them to stop the behavior, or do you want to convince them that they are being cruel? Judging by your letter, I’d argue that the latter goal might be rather unrealistic. If you have explained why certain words or attitudes are inappropriate, and their behavior has continued, I don’t think it’s worth your time and energy to keep trying. I would simply transition yourself to thinking purely about the behavior. The next time they say something offensive, give them a warning. Explain that you’re tired of them using derogatory language about mental illness, that it hurts you, and that you aren’t going to listen to it. (Blogger and author Kellie Hampton has some suggested verbiage if you want ideas.) Tell them that from now on, when they use those kinds of words, you will hang up the phone or leave the gathering immediately. And be prepared to follow through. If they protest that you’re treating them like children, simply say, “Reasoning with you like adults hasn’t worked, and this is important. The ball is in your court.” They may not like it, but I suspect they’ll get the hint.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

When it comes to our 13-month-old daughter, my husband and I have different levels of what I call “bump tolerance.” I am not talking about letting our daughter fall down the stairs or touch a hot stove obviously, but if she lightly bonks her head at the playground or pinches a finger while practicing closing a drawer, I don’t beat myself up about it, even if she cries. I figure that this is part of the learning curve, and some very minor bumps and scrapes are going to happen. The thing is, they don’t happen with my husband, because he follows her around with his hands in a protective bubble whenever he watches her, whisking her away before she collides with anything. He thinks that I am too cavalier and gets furious with me every time our daughter gets hurt. Is one of us doing it wrong, or do we just have different but equally valid parenting styles?

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— Bonked But Not Injured

Dear Bonked,

I tend to be aligned with your line of thought. While getting my toddler ready for bed, I often notice the small bruises cascading down his shins—the normal “wear and tear” for a rambunctious 3-year-old’s body. They clearly don’t bother him, and I think, “looks like he had a fun and active day today!”

It’s really important that as parents of young children we keep in mind what our job is: teach them how to be people in the world. While keeping our kids safe and healthy is undoubtedly a part of that, we can do our kids a disservice if we focus so much on safety that they either miss out on life experiences or do not learn how to cope with minor mishaps. Minor pain provides kids with important sensory experiences that help them learn to modulate their balance, force, speed, and other gross motor functions. What’s more, there’s growing evidence that the way we design childhood environments and play experiences has a detrimental effect on a whole host of things kids’ bodies need in order for them to flourish physically and mentally. I recommend picking up the book Balanced and Barefoot written by occupational therapist Angela J. Hanscom. It’s about the ways in which children’s lack of open-ended nature play in today’s world are detrimental (one memorable section to me was about how kids randomly fall out of their chairs at school with higher frequency than in past years; it’s fascinating).

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Everyday falls and stubbed toes are also a great training ground for teaching children how to cope with major upsets and mild disturbances, a skill all people need to develop. After all, the world doesn’t work to keep us safe, it doesn’t cater to our comfort. Tripping over a fallen log and getting a scrape not only teaches us what is a big physical harm and what isn’t, but it also trains our emotional responses so that other challenges and roadblocks we face as we get older can be managed.

I’d prioritize raising a resilient child over a sheltered one. I vote you let her stumble.

—Allison

For More Parenting Coverage, Listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

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