As a mother, I regularly grapple with two related questions: How soon should I talk about child predators to my kids, and how should I couch such a conversation? I have two daughters, ages 10 and 5, and they interact with adults of all sorts—coaches, teachers, friends, relatives and, in Asia, household help. I want to prolong the innocence with which my children view the world, yet warn them of its dangers. This is tricky, particularly in Asia, where children are welcomed and cherished with a delight that is as genuine as it is—from a Western perspective at least—threatening. Malay shopkeepers call children baby-jaan, or “life,” and press free candy into their palms. Indian bus drivers clamber out to lift young kids into their vehicles. Wizened Chinese waiters break out into smiles and escort crying toddlers toward the live-seafood tank so that the parents can eat in peace. Stern Japanese bank clerks stop all work to gather and coo over a baby.
The enfolding embrace of Asian culture makes it appealing to parents. Yet it can also be scary. I brought my kids to Asia because I wanted them to learn to trust people. At the same time, as my daughters grow up, I need to teach them to spot suspect behavior, especially that which is sexual in nature.
The problem is that those dangers lurk in so many forms: incest, rape, pedophilia, molestation, exploitation, exhibitionism, assault, voyeurism—it’s enough to make a parent’s head spin. The American Psychiatric Association differentiates between pedophiles who are sexually attracted to prepubescent children and child molesters who abuse children for reasons that may not even be sexually motivated. While child molesters are largely male and fit a certain stereotype—social misfit, living alone, unemployed, unable to form adult relationships—pedophiles could be anyone. They stalk playgrounds and schools, identify vulnerable children and spend much time “grooming” the victim. They may be the rich uncle who showers kids with gifts while hugging them too tight and for too long. Or the boyfriend who insinuates himself into a struggling single-mother family. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that in over 90% of rapes of children under 12, the victim knew the offender.
Pedophilia is also rampant in Asia. In April, the Indian government released the results of a survey conducted in 13 states, which indicated that one in two children had been sexually abused, often by people familiar to them. Interpol warns against molesters masquerading as aid workers to get close to poor, orphaned children in the aftermath of natural catastrophes such as the 2004 tsunami. Even under normal circumstances, cultural norms and social structures complicate matters. Most Asian societies are both sexually repressed and respectful of elders—a double whammy when it comes to dealing with sex offenders. From a young age, children are taught not to talk back to elders, which makes it harder for them to tell predatory relatives to stop or to report them. Asia values harmony, within families and society. A girl knows that to accuse an elder of touching her in the wrong places would embarrass her family and taint her as much as it would the offender.
Social workers say that, besides being vigilant, parents need to teach children how to react to sexual advances. That’s harder than it may seem. When my elder daughter was 7, I told her that no man was allowed to touch any part of her body except her hands. “Not even Daddy?” she asked. I paused. No strange man, I amended; or woman for that matter. Then I thought of a lecherous relative and told her the rule applied to extended family and friends, too. My daughter looked at me quizzically, picked up her ball, and ran away. “If anyone pulls down your underwear,” I yelled after her, “I want you to scream loudly.”
My younger daughter views the world with a sanguinity that is heartbreaking. Every morning, as she goes to school, various people twirl her around and lift her into the school bus. When she plays in the park, other parents smile and pinch her cheek; they push her swing and point out birds and butterflies. I watch these strangers with an eye that is both benign and blighted. On the one hand, I wish that my children will be fortunate enough never to be exposed to the darker side of human nature. Yet I know that as a protective parent, I probably will have to sacrifice some of my child’s innocence and trust, before someone else does. I really need to tell my 5-year-old that she is not to “play” with strangers, however affectionate they might be. But perhaps I can wait till she turns 6.
by Shoba Narayan, who lives in Bangalore, is the author of the memoir Monsoon Diary, and the mother of two young daughters