A children’s book for our time

Melanie Dooner

Melanie Dooner

Melanie has worked as a teacher in Catholic secondary schools and now works as a writer and editor

As a mother of two young boys, I would give anything to live in a world where conversations about protecting your children against people who might want to hurt them is unnecessary.

But we don’t live in such a world, so I can’t ignore the need to educate my boys about safety, privacy and trust. Coming from an era where talking about our bodies wasn’t as natural and acceptable in families, it took me some time and a lot of help from my husband, to be able to talk to our boys using correct and appropriate language for body parts.

Therefore, I jumped at the chance to attend a workshop in our parish by Michelle Derrig, stay-at-home mum to four children and author of Only For Me. Michelle spoke frankly, honestly, and beautifully about the important role we have as parents and faith communities, to protect our young and empower them to protect themselves as best they can, and where to go for help if needed.

Michelle began by acknowledging that she wishes she could avoid exposing her children to the realities of sexual abuse and how to respond, and expressed regret that it’s no longer possible or wise. As a mother, I felt her pain as she recounted numerous stories of children she knew who had been victims of abuse and inappropriate sexual behaviour.

What was especially startling about these stories was that another child perpetrated most of the incidents of abuse that she described. Sadly, Michelle said this highlights that the child perpetrator was more than likely a victim of abuse himself or herself, and was acting out as a result.

Frances, a mum of two young children, said, “the statistics presented by Michelle were alarming and the stories she shared were heartbreaking. What hit home most to me was that abuse could be inflicted by anybody at any time, even by other children.”

The setting for the abuse that Michelle described included a local park while parents were present and during a swimming lesson, all times that were completely unexpected. Frances believes that Michelle’s workshop “was a timely reminder for parents and carers of children that we need to be vigilant in keeping them safe from abuse.”

Writing Only For Me was Michelle’s response to the issues she was confronted with. As she sought to work out how best to support her young children without damaging their innocence, Michelle decided she needed to tackle the issues head on, but couched in a familiar context for a young child.

Designed to be read to a child by a loving and attentive parent or carer, Only For Me is a beautifully presented picture book that teaches young children, in particular, how to listen to their own bodies and fears, and avoid situations where they may feel uncomfortable. It also helps them work out the five people in their lives who they can talk to about things that might confuse or frighten them.

According to Michelle, Only For Me is based on two core ideas: that all children have the right to physical and psychological safety at all times, and that nothing is so awful we can’t talk to someone about it. While the pictures are adorable, and the colours and tone are gentle, the book doesn’t tiptoe around this difficult topic.

“There’s a very simple reason why we should use the correct anatomical terms,” Michelle said. “So that it doesn’t get lost in translation.” My heart almost broke when she gave the reasons for the language choices in her book. She explained it’s important that children have the correct language to help them talk to someone about it, and because, if a forensic interview is ever required, the correct language removes much of the ambiguity in the conversation about what actually happened.

Only For Me very cleverly acts as a springboard for conversation. Throughout her presentation, Michelle was very clear that reading the book is the start, not the end, of the conversation. “Remember,” Michelle said, “the book is just a way of bringing the topic in. It breaks down the barriers and guides you.”

Throughout the workshop, Michelle provided strategies to use with young children to help them develop confidence in protecting themselves. Some of the strategies for parents included:

  • helping the child to say “no” in a variety of ways, and practicing till he/she is confident
  • helping the child identify when they feel uncomfortable and discovering what that actually feels like, such as butterflies in the tummy, sweaty palms etc
  • encouraging alternative ways of greeting adults, especially close family, if they are going through a stage where they don’t want to show affection, such as allowing them to give a handshake or a high five rather than forcing them to give a cuddle and a kiss
  • fostering open communication in the family by asking each day, the best and worst thing about their day
  • identifying five safe adults who the child can talk to, and reassess this list periodically to keep it up-to-date as the child gets older.

Donna, a mum of a boy and a girl of primary school age, said, “the talk reminded me of the importance of talking to my children about protecting their bodies and their privacy.” She said our children could never be too young to be engaged in conversations that really matter.

Michelle stresses that her intention with the book is education, care and empowerment, so much so that costs are kept affordable for families, and that 100% of author royalties from the sale of the book are donated to one of Australia’s leading child protection agencies to assist them to do their work.

As the adults in our children’s lives it is our responsibility to teach them the skills to protect themselves. Only For Me is available for $17.95 (Aus) from: dewfallpublishing@gmail.com or www.onlyforme.com.au

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