Men as Allies to Children

Making Relationships Work Safely and Well for Everyone

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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Recently a friend of mine told me a very poignant story. “When I was a child,” she said, “I often had to stay in bed because I had rheumatic fever. A man who was a friend of our family, remembering the isolation and loneliness when he himself had rheumatic fever as a child, used to come up to my bedroom and visit with me, playing games and talking.

“Many years later, I met this man at a party and told him again how much the time he had spent with me while I was sick in bed had meant to me. This lovely man, who is now 88-years-old, said sadly, ‘Oh, I’d never dare to do that nowadays. Someone would think I was going to do something wrong.” My friend sighed and added, “Isn’t that terrible? What a loss it would have been in my life as a child if I had not had those wonderful visits! It does not keep children safe to deprive them of healthy relationships with good men!”

I completely agree. So many times, I’ve been approached by men who want to have fun supportive interactions with the children in their lives, but are afraid of having their intentions misunderstood. Most children have far more opportunities to interact with women than with men. This is a great pity, because both boys and girls often long for opportunities to do things with men as well as women.

The reality is that, although most acts of violence and abuse are committed by men, most men are neither violent nor abusive.  In my experience, most men are loving compassionate respectful people. However, even when they have very good intentions, both men and women, boys and girls, sometimes do things that are hurtful or upsetting to others. Fortunately, most problems of this kind can be prevented or stopped through better skills and understanding about communication and boundaries with children and their parents.

Below are eight concerns we often hear from caring men about their interactions with children. The answers are based on the experiences of the wonderful men in our organization who use Kidpower skills and strategies to prevent misunderstandings and build strong relationships with the children and parents in their lives.

1. Concern About Playing: It’s gotten so I’m afraid to tickle or rough-house with my grandchildren!

Touch for play like tickling or rough-housing is wonderful as long both the child and the adult like it and the parents are okay with this. Sometimes games like tickling start out okay and then get to be too much. Make an agreement ahead of time that you will stop right away when the child says, “Stop!” and make sure that the child knows how to communicate this message in a way that you can understand.

Even children who can’t speak yet have ways of letting you know when they don’t like a game anymore. You can build their safety and confidence by paying attention to these cues and helping them develop words to communicate their feelings. For example, you might say to a child who is pulling back, “It looks like your body is telling both of us that you want to stop. Is that right? Thank you for letting me know.”

2. Concern About Lap Sitting: Is it okay to let the child of an acquaintance climb onto my lap?

When in doubt, check with the child’s parents. Ask in a way that makes it clear that you will be positive no matter what the answer is. For example, “She looks like she’d like to sit in my lap. I’d love it but only if this is really okay with you. What do you think?”

If the parents say that they’d prefer not, be prepared to reply cheerfully, “Thank you for telling me!”  If the child is somewhere without the parents, such as at school, ask the teacher or other adult in charge what the rules are.

Again, pay attention to cues like the child starting to wiggle to get down. Rather than trying to coax this child to stay on your lap, encourage the child to do something else when she or he is done sitting with you.

3. Concern About Watching: My nephew gets upset if I even just watch him too much. What could possibly be wrong with just trying to connect by looking at a child?

People are different, and what bothers one person might be quite enjoyable to another. Some children adore having adults watch them at play. Other children find clear and direct observation to be extremely intense and intrusive and will withdraw from adults who they perceive to be staring at them. The best way to build a connection is to be completely okay with having your nephew not respond to you right away. Instead of trying to push for a direct interaction, do something interesting nearby, possibly related to what he is doing, and let your nephew approach you on his own terms.

4. Concern About Greetings: I find young children so delightful and really like to say “Hello” when I see them. But often they seem afraid of me because I’m a large man with a loud voice. How can I let them and their parents know that I’m a safe person?

You can show families that you are likely to be a trustworthy person by acting with a great deal of respect towards them. Think about where you are, whether or not other people are around, and how familiar you are to this family. The larger you are, or the more isolated the place is, the more physical space you might need to give in order to not crowd others unintentionally.

If you are a familiar person or in a public place with others around, you can start with a quick friendly greeting, as long as you are completely okay with the parents or children choosing not to respond. Remember that their response has nothing to do with you. Just pleasantly accept the right of others not to greet you.

If the parents are okay with you talking with their child and the child seems interested, try meeting the child where he or she is by getting down to the child’s level and making your voice soft and calm. If a child seems uncomfortable even if the adults are okay, the best approach is to ignore the child and have a friendly conversation with the parents. If the parents worry about their child not seeming polite to you, let them know that you are fine and prefer that children not be pressured to interact with you. If you keep running into this family, your friendly respectful greetings are likely to have a positive effect after a while.

5. Concern About Protecting: What if I am in public and I see a child I don’t know who is lost or about to do something dangerous? If a mother sees a strange man approaching her child, she might panic, but I don’t want to stand by and do nothing when a child is at risk of coming to harm.

In Kidpower, we teach families that the safety rules are different in emergencies and that, if a child is having the kind of emergency where she or he cannot check first, the safety rule is to get help, even from a stranger.

If possible, try to help or protect the child while keeping your distance.  Suppose that you see a young child wandering somewhere with no adults close by. Often it works to say in a very calm way, “Where’s your mom? Please take me to your mom!” You can follow the child to her or his adults and say, “I was worried because you seemed so far away from your child.”

If this doesn’t work, you can try to get help by staying near the child while you call 911 or by walking with the child to the nearest checkout counter, security guard, etc.

Suppose that a child is at immediate risk of getting hurt – perhaps by a car, an animal, or another person or because of a cliff, pond, or busy street. Remember that the safety of a child is more important than anyone’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense. This is a time when you might need to physically stop the child. You can help prevent problems for yourself by calling out to the world over and over to explain what you are doing as you do it. For example, “I am stopping this girl from running into the street. Please help me!”

Be prepared that the child’s parents might see your intervention as being threatening or offensive. Remember that you took this action because the safety of a child comes first. If a parent does get upset, you can say something reassuring and leave. For example, “I am sorry I upset you. I just wanted to make sure your child was safe. I will leave now.” If you are worried that a parent might make a complaint about your stepping in, you can contact the security guard, store manager, or police yourself to explain what happened.

6. Concern About Hugging: As a male teacher, I’ve become afraid to hug a child or hold hands. Yet so often my young students crave physical affection, especially if they are upset. How can I make sure this is going to be okay?

What a sad and lonely world it would be if children could never be touched with affection by the adults who are caring for them! Develop a written school policy about physical affection that is known to the administration, parents, and teachers. Affection should be age-appropriate, not forced, offered equally to those children who want it, not distracting to educational activities, and never a secret. Within those boundaries, affection at a level you feel good about should be offered joyfully and with confidence.

7. Concern About Forcing: What if I have to make children do something that they really don’t like? I’m afraid they will accuse me of child abuse!

One of Kidpower’s boundary principles is that, although we each belong to ourselves, some things are not a choice. For example, you might need to stop a child physically who is about to throw a rock through a window or hit another child. You might need to overrule a child who does not want to leave the park or playground or force a child to get stitches, use a carseat, or wear a bike helmet.

Touch for affection or play should be the choice of the child as long as it’s okay with each person involved, safe, and allowed by the adults in charge. Touch for health or safety or to move a child when necessary is often not the child’s choice – but any kind of touch or any kind of problem should never have to be a secret.

If a child is upset with you, you can acknowledge the child’s feelings, explain that this is not a choice, offer what choices you can, and encourage the child to tell everyone about what happened. For example, “I understand that you are sad that we have to go inside. It is okay to feel unhappy. But it is raining and I don’t want to get wet. You can walk on your own or I can help you. You can tell your mom and dad that I picked you up to get us both out of the rain.”

8. Concern About Joking: I like to joke a lot. My niece used to think my teasing was wonderful but now she gets offended. What am I doing wrong?

There are two issues here. One is that, as adults, we want to be careful to model using humor respectfully. In other words, even if children laugh, we want to be careful to avoid humor that puts others down for how they look, for their abilities, or who they are or that makes being mean seem funny. The other is that, as children get older, it is normal that a joke that once seemed hilarious now seems silly.

Your niece is giving you a wonderful opportunity to get to know and understand her better. Ask her what kinds of jokes she likes or doesn’t like and why. She might even be willing to help you find jokes that both of you enjoy. Or, she might prefer to have a relationship with you that does not involve teasing at all for a while.

Ten Key Points to Remember

With good boundaries and clear communication, men can be tremendous allies to children and give them the joy of having caring men as active players in their lives. The People Safety skills that Kidpower teaches are useful in building positive relationships regardless of gender, age, or abilities. Here are ten key points to remember in interacting with children:

  1. When in doubt, check first with parents or other caregivers and listen to the answers.
  2. Never try to overrule a child’s parents unless there is an urgent safety issue.
  3. Make agreements with the adults in charge about what is and is not okay in different situations.
  4. Remember that affection should be a choice, not a requirement.
  5. Meet children where they are in terms of connection and let them come to you.
  6. Notice and respect each child’s boundaries and be prepared for these boundaries to change.
  7. Never ask a child to keep presents, favors, treats, touch, or problems a secret.
  8. Be clear and public when something is not a choice.
  9. Be careful with humor and teasing, pay attention to everyone’s reaction, and be open to changing teasing habits in order to strengthen your relationships.
  10. Put safety first, even if someone might get upset with you.

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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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