I stayed up until two am last night watching Leaving Neverland on HBO while my kids slept peacefully in their beds upstairs. Then I watched After Neverland with Oprah. Then I felt sick so I stayed up writing.
My intention is to keep this post short, simple, and hopefully helpful for busy parents, so I'll get right to my point. Leaving Neverland (and After Neverland) should be watched by every single parent. With eyes wide open.
I think we can all agree as parents that our primary goal is to protect our kids and keep them safe. Some dangers are obvious (to us and our kids) and others can be confusing and too easy to miss. Sometimes we don't want to open our eyes, because we think - not this again. But Leaving Neverland needs to be watched. It isn't about Michael Jackson or sensationalism, or about priests in the news (which don't even hit our parental radar anymore). No, this documentary is something deeper.
It's about innocent kids who are too confused to understand anything - because everything has been manipulated and all lines between right and wrong have been blurred.
If you have a hard time watching because you get stuck on being a Michael Jackson fan, replace his name and listen to the story. It is not about whether MJ is guilty or you believe Wade Robson and James Safechuck. It's not about judging mothers for the choices they made. What it is about - and what the details should not interfere with or cloud over - is the palpable emotion you get from the boys (who are now men with their own children).
Watching it will make you upset (as it should) and yes, it is easier to watch a show on Netflix that isn't going to cause more stress. I know, parenting is stressful enough - I'm with you. But here's the thing - the value in watching Leaving Neverland and listening to the men recount their stories is realizing that they could be any one of our kids.
I could tell you how I felt, and what I think, but the real reason I'm writing this post is to encourage open dialogue between parents and their children. I feel strongly that something good needs to come from watching Leaving Neverland, and that my part in it is to encourage people to discuss hard topics, so that we (hopefully) don't have to discuss even harder ones.
Here are 3 messages you can use to talk with your kids (at any age) about sexual abuse.
1. Grown-ups don't tell kids to keep secrets between them. Not a teacher, not a coach, not a family member. Not even a grandparent. Is this hardcore? Not at all. Secrets mean you hide. They are deceptive and do not protect anyone.
2. Just because someone is older, they don't get to tell, teach, show, touch, hurt or even help...in private. That's right, adults don't even get to help kids...if it's in private. The kind nature of a child may feel as if helping is the right thing to do. Or they need to be helped so they should listen because this authoritative figure or older person knows better in their mind. Helping kids is fantastic, but it is not done in private nor as a secret.
3. If an older person is trying to hide a behavior or "make a deal" with a kid, it is always okay to tell. There is never fault or blame. It is critically important to keep this wide open. There is never fault or blame placed on anyone. Why? Believe it or not, kids may not worry as much about themselves as they will about getting the adult in trouble. Especially if a kid has been groomed into that mindset. Sometimes, they are protecting the adult more than they are protecting themselves and don't even realize it. Setting it clear that nobody is at fault or to blame keeps an open space for honesty.
Tough conversations at the kitchen table can feel daunting and it's easy to put it off because we have so many things in our busy lives - but there is nothing more important than having these conversations and making sure our kids feel safe talking to us about these topics. Work, school, and extracurriculars all pale in comparison to keeping our kids safe, and that's what these conversations are about.
I hope this is a conversation you have tonight or tomorrow with your kids. There is a little boy or little girl out there right now that needs to hear it.
Linda Scruggs is a registered nurse, solo mom of two, writer/content creator, and caregiving advocate, covering family health and wellness.
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