Dressed Down

Photo: Marjorie Bertrand on Unsplash


He eyed her twirling in her tutu and his heart squeezed with longing.

He wanted to do that, too. It was not fair that it was not allowed.

That only girls could.

Be princesses.

Wear dresses.

Put on make up.

Play with dolls.

Paint their nails.

He’d tried, of course, but he could tell that even those who did not outright take things from him or forbid him or call him hurtful names, didn’t really feel comfortable with his choices. There was that look they gave, the forced smile, the way they inevitably ran out of patience and gave him “other suggestions” or directed him toward “trying other things.” He was given gifts that made it clear that what he’d asked for was not acceptable and therefore required others choose for him.

He could tell his parents were ashamed.

They loved him. He knew. But they didn’t quite love that part of him. The part that he loved in himself the most. The part that he hated. Sometimes.

It wasn’t even that he didn’t like sports, or climbing trees, or making mud pies. He did. It was just that those weren’t fun without adding a bit of dance, of looking for fairies amidst the branches, or pretending that the mud pies were part of a birthday bakery for princesses.

They kept saying how “wonderful it was to have such an imagination,” but their body language told him that they’d have much preferred if his imagination didn’t quite go where it wanted to. That they would have liked better an imagination of the kind they felt was more appropriate for boys.

“Do you want to be a girl?” his sister asked. They were in her room for a tea party. She was wearing one of her ballet-princess dresses and the full set of jewelry she’d gotten from Grandma just the other day. She let him wear the crown. They pretended this made him a princess, too, but they both knew she chose the crown because it would be easy for him to take down if someone walked in.

Or say he was a king.

Sometimes he envied her so much that it carved a hole into the center of his being. The ease and confidence with which she could prance around in rustling taffeta and glittery baubles, the smiles she got when she dressed up and smeared lipstick on her face … It hurt. It hurt. It hurt.

She let him into her world, but they both know that it was not his to live in. They both knew that when her friends came for a play-date he would be excluded. They both knew that even with no dress on, and with a crown fit for a king, at any moment someone might barge in, and frown, and find a reason to ‘redirect’ him.

Her question made him cry.

Because he didn’t want to be a girl.

He wanted to be a boy who liked playing with dolls and painting his nails and having tea parties and trying on dresses and decorating mud-pie cakes for princesses.

And yet … it would have been so easy. If he were a girl.

No frowns. No shaming. No overhearing adults talk of how he needed “toughening up” or was “too sensitive” or was “definitely gay-material” or “headed in the wrong direction.” Not having to know that Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa were kind of ashamed of him.

“I want to be me,” he sobbed, and fingered a dress his sister discarded and that he would give his heart to be allowed to put on without fear. “I just want to be me … and I don’t understand why it is wrong.”




For Linda Hill’s SoCS challenge: dress



Things That Matter

down the mountain

Photo: Atara Katz




Around the things that matter:

The hopes of young

To grow old

Without being gunned down

By hate long fed.

The voices that have gone


By overwhelming glower

And will no more be silenced

By greed or dread.


Around those who stand proud

To challenge unjust power.

It is the coming together

Which will pave

New roads

For change.




For The Daily Post

What Would You Do If …? Children’s Safety Plans.


The mother of one of the children I work with called to let me know they’d would have to cancel their session for the week. There were some unexpected problems and she had no arrangement for the older child. Her youngest, whom I see in Speech Therapy, has several developmental issues, and the mother–a single parent–shuttles him for several remedial therapies every week. She sounded anxious and wrung out, so I asked her if she wanted to tell me more about what was going on.

“My older son had a bad experience with someone,” she sighed.

“What kind?”

“He usually stays with my mom when I take Mick* to therapies, but my mom’s away for a couple of months to take care of her sister who is having heart surgery. I found a sitter for him, but the sitter can’t come to my house, so I take him there and pick him up on the way home. Everything has been fine the first two weeks and Dan loved going …”


“He was really upset when I picked him up yesterday. Said he never wanted to go back …” The mom sounded quite upset herself.

“Did he tell you why?”

“He said he didn’t like being there anymore. You know where my mind went … I was thinking the worst … but I didn’t want to put words in his mouth, so I tried to breathe and told him I respected his feelings and that we’ll figure out what to do, but it would help me to know what about being there he didn’t like … At first he just shrugged and looked down and such. Then he told me someone had come to visit the babysitter and brought a ‘really big scary dog who jumped.’ He got scared but the babysitter laughed it off and called him a baby and kept egging him on to pet the dog, ‘not be so yellow’ and not ’embarrass himself’ … and kept sending the dog toward him. Dan wanted to go home but he ‘knew I wasn’t there’ because I was in PT with Mick and he didn’t know what to do … I’m relieved nothing worse happened … but I feel awful he was scared and I wasn’t there. When I called the sitter, he was dismissive and said ‘it was just a dog and it wouldn’t hurt for the dude to toughen up some’. I won’t send him there again!”

We rescheduled for when she could bring both children, at least until she found another option.

“It was good you listened and took him seriously,” I tried to reassure her. “You can’t always protect kids from having an uncomfortable experience, but you can give them the power to reach out and have you help make sure it doesn’t go on. He told you something changed, and you’re taking steps to keep him safe. He did well for telling you, and you did well by not pooh-poohing his worries. In fact,” I added, “this is probably a good opportunity to speak with both kids about things they CAN do if they ever feel uncomfortable or need help. Just like adults, kids feel more secure if they know there’s a plan.”

red phone

Many adults have some form of emergency plan. We know what we’ll do if there’s a fire. We know what to do if someone ails. We have an idea of who can help if we’re feeling scared or intruded upon. We have phones and know how to use them. We have friends and family we can call on, we understand ‘gut-feelings’ and know that danger requires a response.

While children don’t need to figure out their own safety plans, it can be very helpful for them to have some tools and to have rehearsed certain scenarios during times of calm.

It is why schools have fire drills. It is why you should have one in your house–in day time as well as during dark. Make it fun, but keep it serious: it can save lives to know what way one is expected to go, what the alarms sound like, who to look for, where to convene, what exit to use, how to make it to the door with your eyes closed (think: dark and smoke and a blaring alarm …).

It is why children need to know to call 911 (and that it’s not a toy or something to ‘experiment on’). Why it helps to teach children to ask for help from people in uniform and/or from mothers with children (while most strangers are probably safe, uniformed people are often ‘in official capacity to help’ and mothers with children can often feel less intimidating and know how to respond age-appropriately to a child in distress).

Children as young as three can memorize their first and last name, as well as their parents’ names, what they do, and where they work. They can memorize their address (make it into a song …). Four-year-old can memorize a phone number. At five they can practice writing it from memory.

In addition to immediate safety, children should also be taught what to do ‘in case’: what if they find themselves separated from you in a mall or public gathering? What if they’re someplace else (with a baby-sitter, school, a birthday party or sleepover) and feel something is wrong? What can they do if they don’t feel safe?

Children should know they can always reach out to you, and need not worry about hurting the feelings of the adult they are with (you’d be surprised how often children don’t call a parent because they worry they might upset the adult they’re with). They need to know you will not be angry with them if they tell you they’re uncomfortable or scared. They need to know you’ll find a way to make it better–it may not be possible for you to fly in from another State in the middle of the night, but you might be able to speak with someone where the child is, or to otherwise assess whether more extreme measures are required–children shouldn’t feel they have to figure it out on their own if things feel too much to manage.

Teach children what to do if they need help and cannot reach you. Who else can they call? A good friend of the family? Another family member? A classmate’s parent?

Teach them when it is a good idea to call 911: If there’s a fire (even if they’d caused it), if they think something really bad is happening; if they or someone else is being hurt or might get hurt real soon if someone doesn’t come to help; if someone (especially an adult, but also if the adult in charge seems unable to manage the situation) is out of control or inappropriate; if the person in charge ‘acts weird or scary’ (children may not know to identify drunk or drugged, but often do pick up on something that’s not as it should be).

fireman with boy

Reassure children they shouldn’t get in the car with anyone they don’t feel safe riding with, who breaks the rules or is being tricky or secretive. It doesn’t have to be a stranger. You don’t have to explain drunk or drugged to very young children (though it might not be a bad idea to bring up the issue with older elementary school children), but you can give the child a sense of control for when they feel unsafe and ill at ease. I know a child (age 9) who refused to get in the carpool because the adult had texted while driving and had her eyes off the road for what felt like very long. That child’s mother had discussed safety with her, so she was able to say to the driver: “My mom doesn’t let me ride in cars where someone is texting. Please put the phone away until we get there.” When the driver refused, the child asked to call her mom.

Many parents are afraid to discuss problematic situations with their children. They think about sexual offenders, they worry about making their child feel unsafe in the world.

In reality, discussing safety skills is just as important as teaching children how to cross the street, how to wait for the light to change, how to use (and not use) tools and sharp objects, what to touch (and not). Preparing your children to manage unexpected situations is just as important. It gives them skills to be less helpless. Role play and practice these at home. Let them know it is okay to reach out and that you’ll figure out how to help … Reassure them they should tell you if they think they’d done something wrong … even if they worry you’d be mad: That you’d like to know and would help and love them anyhow.

As for the little boy: his mother had a good discussion with him (and his younger brother), and together they’d made some plans.

They talked about ‘listening to tummy messages’ (intuition) which let them know something was not okay. They talked about things they could do: Call mommy or grandma, call Auntie Nell (who lived nearby and was willing to be standby help), call 911 if they were really afraid or needed someone to come right away.  They talked about how it was okay to tell about things that didn’t feel right, and that they didn’t need to keep secrets they didn’t want to keep. That their bodies were theirs, and so were their feelings. That being scared is not bring a crybaby and they didn’t need to touch, go, see, try, say things they felt weren’t okay, went against the rules in their house, or felt ‘not right.’

And the little guy?

He learned his mother was there for him. That it was okay to let her know how he felt and he didn’t have to protect her or worry or figure out things on his own. That he was just as important to take care of as his younger brother. That he could listen to his gut. That it wasn’t okay for anyone to put him down or make him feel ashamed to tell. And … that the world can at times be uncomfortable but he did not have to manage it alone and knew what to do if he felt he needed help.

Do your children know what to do if something happens? If a caregiver doesn’t show up to pick them up? If they find themselves alone someplace? If they feel intruded upon? If they are told confusing things? If they are asked to break rules they don’t think should be broken? Do they know who they can call on if you’re not around?

Make a plan. Today is a good time!

action plan

*names changed to protect confidentiality

Keeping Children Safe–a how to resource!

talking to children about abuse

When it comes to keeping children safe from sexual abuse, many parents are baffled as to what to do. They don’t want to scare their children or give them ideas about the world being unsafe, and at the same time worry that lack of safety skills may place their children in danger of being exploited.

Parents don’t know when to start, how to bring the topic up, what to say (and what not to say). Many prefer to not bring up the issue at all, or focus only on ‘stranger-danger’–even though 90% of child sexual abuse happens in the hands of people familiar to the child (and upward of 75% by caregivers). It is difficult to conceive that children can be harmed this way. No one wants to believe that people they may know could be unsafe. We want to believe we can keep them safe from everything and everyone. Always. Moreover, the whole issue can bring up painful memories in those who pushed away their own experience of inappropriate touch.

Embarrassment, too, often complicates caregivers’ discourse about sexual abuse, as does worry about questions that one may not know how to respond to or that would raise issues of immodesty.

Even among those parents and caregivers who do discuss safety and sexual-abuse prevention, many don’t realize that keeping children safe goes beyond a one-time ‘talk’ about the topic.

Fortunately, there are resources like the one below, which do an excellent job introducing the issue of safety and body boundaries in children, from infancy through to adolescence. It is a very good place to start!

If you are a parent or a caregiver–read it. It may give you information or suggestions you did not think of before. If you are not a direct caregiver–share this with others who are. They will thank you. More importantly, the children would be safer.



Of course, children’s safety extends well beyond sexual abuse prevention. Verbal and physical abuse, bullying, and neglect are other sad realities for all too many children. We all should be vigilant to notice, intervene, and seek help for any child at risk. Any risk. It is our responsibility as adults to do so.

This resource, and other educational and practical tools for improving child safety are only one step and target certain risks, but are still immensely important to read and incorporate. This offers a very good start. Following these recommendation can help.

The reality is that even with all the information and education possible, we may not be able to stop some things from happening once. However, with good information and open communication, we can at the very least teach our children what to listen to (and what not to listen to or believe), and we can reinforce clearly how they can come to us with any discomfort, concern, worry, or imposed secret. This can help can minimize the likelihood of the unwanted happening. Just as important if not more–by providing children with good, ongoing, open communication about their bodies, their right to safety and honoring their intuition–we can ensure that what might happen will not escalate and will not happen again. Because they’ll come to us. Because they’ll tell. Because we will make it stop.

Click. Read. Learn. Share.


CSA we have to talk about it