It’s the Winter Olympics, and for the moment we put stories of stomach turning sexual abuse aside. But only for a moment. Sports physician Larry Nassar has been stopped from ever again using his position of authority to sexually violate young athletes but the next generation of athletes is still at risk. Why?
The things we currently do to screen out future abusers are necessary but insufficient. A sociopath trusted with the responsibilities of coaching or training or providing medical examinations and treatment will cover their tracks. Some will slip undetected through the safeguards. What is the final line of protection and defense?
It is the young athlete herself or himself. There is a skill that is not difficult to teach but is a critical counterweight to obedience to authority drummed into children from the earliest age. Like home insurance or self-defense arts, we hope we don’t need to use it but understand its precious value if we do.
This skill is called Intelligent Disobedience. It comes from training given to guide dogs who are taught to disobey if executing a command would be harmful. This is done carefully so as not to confuse the dog on when and when not to obey. Growing out of my research on authorities abusing power, we have tested how to teach this skill to children. You can teach it to yours. And you should.
Even at a very young age, children learn simple self-protection sequences like “Stop, Drop and Roll” if their clothes catch fire. They are taught “Run, Hide, Fight” as a sequence of choices in the event of an active shooter incident. We all know “If you see something, say something” to pre-empt acts of terror.
To these we need to add: Blink, Think, Choice, Voice. What does this mean?
When told by an authority figure to do something wrong, sexual or otherwise, there is a physiological response. It is apparent in the eyes, which may open wide in disbelief or begin to involuntarily blink. (You want me to do WHAT?!) Cognitive powers are reduced.
When the coach or team physician — or piano teacher, or camp counselor or Uncle Joe — touches a private part, or asks the child to touch theirs, there is a particularly heightened moment of overwhelming confusion. The individual is vulnerable to obeying the authority figure, which is the default response that society has drilled into them.
With a little preparation they can quickly recover from this shock and re-engage their cognitive ability to make choices. A simple approach is to start BLINKING volitionally to interrupt the startled response. Then THINK about the conflicting rules. I am supposed to listen to the coach but the coach is not supposed to touch my private parts. Now make a CHOICE about which rule to follow in this situation and VOICE it clearly. If the choice is “No, I don’t want you to do that,” say it in a voice that can’t be ignored. BLINK. THINK. Make a CHOICE. Use your VOICE.
Just like “Stop, Drop and Roll” each of these steps can be practiced with an accompanying physical gesture. This helps build neural pathways and muscle memory for the new behavior. We recently successfully tested this approach with children from four years old to preteens. Other researchers may further test and improve on it. Meanwhile, the technique can be used now to prepare children if they find themselves in the terrible predicament of being told to do something bad by an adult in whose care you trusted them.
Learning intelligent disobedience has many applications beyond preventing sexual abuse. For example, when being told to intentionally injure another player, or to stay on the field despite lightening. But sadly, preventing sexual abuse is the most immediate need. Our job as adults is to practice it with the children in our lives and then listen to and support them when they use it.
Individually and as a society, we should do everything we can to protect children so the burden of stopping abusive authority is not placed on them. We should also prepare them if our best safeguards fail.
For more information on how to do this, visit www.blinkthinkchoicevoice.com
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.