Village of caregivers: Practicing communal safety for your child
Updated: May 12
CW: Child abuse, child sexual abuse
Imagine these scenarios.
It’s your child’s first day in preschool, and during drop-off you realize that you didn't talk about body safety. What do you do?
When enrolling your child for camp, they ask for emergency contacts. Who do you put down as your emergency contacts?
Your child comes home upset and you find out that there was an unsafe interaction with someone they know. How do you respond?
I’ve been in these situations, and if you have too, then you know how it feels to worry and wonder if you did everything to make sure your child is safe. When we feel unprepared, moments like these catch us off guard and oftentimes leave us scrambling to find a quick solution. Anxiously, we patch together some version of a safety plan and include "Stranger Danger"(link) for good measure. But in our haste, we skip steps that children, depending on their developmental age and capabilities, would need to understand what they’ve been told and how to act on that information when the time comes. Although we mean well, we simply burden them with a responsibility that we didn't prepare them for while trying to ease our own guilt.
If and when this happens to you, remember you’re not alone. And there is a better way to approach safety with your child.
Perhaps you’ve heard of phrases like “safe people” or “safety network” when it comes to teaching our children about body safety. I like to use the phrase “village of caregivers” by Dr. Han Ren because I feel it closely resembles what our families and communities practiced in their home countries. But what does a village of caregivers look like to us as South Asian Americans raising families outside of our ancestral homes?
With our layered and complex identities, along with our lived experiences, we need to consider what safety truly looks like within our diasporic communities and find the right caregivers to share this responsibility with.
We need to ask ourselves how our children’s racialized, gendered, sexual, and other marginalized identities factor into this? What are some unique challenges our children may need extra support with? What are some ways we can help our children thrive?
As you dive into these questions, here are some things to keep in mind when building a safe and supportive community of caregivers for your child.
Your child is at the center.
Because we are raising children who are racialized, who will hear and be expected to adhere to gendered norms, who may be queer, disabled, caste oppressed or who may be marginalized in other ways, it is imperative that we center these identities.
Speak with your child. Learn about their needs and how to best support them. Include them in the process of building their village of caregivers by asking them with whom they feel safe and comfortable. Let them exercise their intuition about a person and think through what safety looks and feels like to them. With their insight guiding the process, finding ways to support their needs may look like re-examining power dynamics in parent-child relationships, as well as questioning our inherited cultural values and expectations.
There are no free passes.
When we use “Stranger Danger” as a cover-all-bases approach to safety, we create this image of a cartoonish “bad guy” who is easy to spot and uses obvious tactics to lure young people. We also set up the illusion that “good” grown ups are safe because we know them. This illusion, inadvertently, skews our own perceptions on what unsafe, neglectful and/or abusive interactions look like within our own families and communities.
According to CDC, approximately 1 in 7 children were abused or neglected by parents, caregivers or someone in a custodial role (e.g. teachers, coaches, religious leaders). As for child sexual abuse, 91% of these crimes were perpetrated by someone the child or the child’s family knows. Despite these statistics, we continue to push the narrative of strangers committing the abuses while we remain silent on the child abuse and neglect that happens within our South Asian families and communities.
Don’t automatically assume that a parent, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, close friends, or any other person who interacts with your child is safe. Have your child actively participate in building their village of caregivers, and use their insight to understand what their relationships with the adults in their lives look like. But, does this mean that we don’t talk about safety when it comes to strangers? No. It just means we need to emphasize safety across the board.
Not all forms of abuse are physical.
Most often, we prioritize body safety when raising our kids. From the moment they interact with their peers as toddlers, we diligently teach them to keep their hands to themselves and not cause harm. These messages are repeated throughout their early years in picture books, songs, children’s programming and at child care centers. However, as the child grows, these interactions change.
Body boundaries are just one form of safety they need to learn, but not all forms of abuse are physical. When talking with your child about how to protect their bodies, include the importance of social, emotional and mental well being. Guide them as they figure out their boundaries and how to practice safety both in person and through online interactions.
It may feel overwhelming at first, but with time building a village of safety and support will become a part of your practice as a caregiver. Feel free to use these questions as a guide for you and your child.
Questions for self:
Is this person someone I can count on to be my child's emergency contact? Why or why not?
What are my values, and do they share these values?
What identities am I supporting?
Are they wanting to be and capable of being my child's safe person?
Questions to ask your child:
What moments come to mind when I think of this person as someone who is safe?
What does respect look and feel like?
How did that person show you they were listening to you?
What were some ways they helped you?
Did this person ask you to keep any secrets? If so, when and what were they?
Remember, abuse is preventable when we are proactive about our children's safety. Include your child in the process, keep them in the loop about safety and abuse prevention, let them know you believe them, and be their advocate.