You're a thief—a con artist.
You recently met an elderly widow with a good-sized bank account
fueled by pension and dividend checks. In sharp contrast, your own
financial engine is running on fumes. You decide to take her money.
So you befriend the lady. You run
small errands for her. You buy her gifts. You listen to her stories
and you comfort her when she feels lonely. You put your arm around
her and tell her you understand her problems. You spend time with
her each day. You tell her she's special. You gain her trust. Her
natural suspicion disappears.
Only then does the conversation shift
to money. You tell her about a tremendous investment opportunity.
You offer her a chance to share in this special event. If she's
curious, you play on that curiosity. You answer her questions and
downplay her fears.
And your work pays off. She trusts
you. She signs the check.
Three minutes after her bank opens,
you're in the wind, cash in hand and ready to target your next
But what if you're a child molester—a
predator? What if the object of your desire isn't the widow's bank
account, but her six-year-old grandson? What steps will you take to
get what you want?
Not much will change. A predator will
identify and engage his victim. He'll gain the child's trust, break
down his defenses, and manipulate him into performing or permitting
the desired sex act. If necessary, the predator will gain access to
the child by employing the same techniques with the child's parent
or adult caretaker.
The process is called
grooming. It increases the predator's access to his victim and
decreases the likelihood of discovery.
Anna C. Salter is a respected
psychologist. She is an expert in the field of child sexual
maltreatment, and she spells it out:
"The establishment (and eventual
betrayal) of affection and trust occupies a central role in the
child molester's interactions with children....The grooming
process often seems similar from offender to offender, largely
because it takes little to discover that emotional seduction is
the most effective way to manipulate children."
These men are convicted child
molesters. They, too, are experts in the field of child
maltreatment, and they also spell it out:
"[P]arents are so naive—they're
worried about strangers and should be worried about their
brother-in-law. They just don't realize how devious we can be. I
used to abuse children in the same room with their parents and
they couldn't see it or didn't seem to know it was happening."
"I was disabled and spent months
grooming the parents, so they would tell their children to take
me out and help me. No one thought that disabled people could be
"[P]arents are partly to blame if
they don't tell their children about [sexual matters]—I used it
to my advantage by teaching the child myself."
"[P]arents shouldn't be
embarrassed to talk about things like this—it's harder to abuse
or trick a child who knows what you're up to."
Here's what the predators are
Grooming is a process. It begins when
the predator chooses a target area. He may visit places where
children are likely to go: schools, shopping malls, playgrounds,
parks, and the like. He may work or volunteer at businesses that
cater to children. Other predators strike up relationships with
adults who have children in the home—single parent families make
particularly good targets.
Victim selection and recruitment are
next. There is no prototypical victim of child sexual abuse. Any
child may be victimized. Not surprisingly, predators often target
children with obvious vulnerabilities. A child who feels unloved and
unpopular will soak up adult attention like a sponge. Children with
family problems, who spend time alone and unsupervised, who lack
confidence and self-esteem, and who are isolated from their peers
are all likely targets.
Predators engage or "recruit" their
victims in different ways. Many use a combination of forced teaming
and charm. They may offer to play games, give rides, or buy treats
and gifts as tokens of friendship. They may offer drugs or alcohol
to older children or teenagers. And they almost always offer a
sympathetic, understanding ear. Your parents don't understand or
respect you? I do. Other kids make fun of you? I know what that's
like—it was the same way for me when I was your age. They don't
trust you at home? Boy, I know what that's like—your parents never
really want you to grow up. But I trust you. I respect you. I care
for you more than anybody else. And I love you. I'm here for you.
Successful predators find and
fill voids in a child's life.
A predator will usually introduce
secrecy at some point during the grooming process. Initially,
secrecy binds the victim to the predator: "Here's some candy. But
don't tell your friends because they'll be jealous, and don't tell
your mother because she won't like you eating between meals." Later
on, secrecy joins hands with threats: "If you tell your mother what
happened, she'll hate you. It'll kill her. Or I'll kill her. Or I'll
The forging of an emotional bond
through grooming leads to physical contact. Predators use the
grooming process to break down a child's defenses and increase the
child's acceptance of touch. The first physical contact between
predator and victim is often nonsexual touching designed to identify
limits: an "accidental" touch, an arm around the shoulder, a
brushing of hair. Nonsexual touching desensitizes the child. It
breaks down inhibitions and leads to more overt sexual touching—the
predator's ultimate goal.
The best way to recognize grooming
behavior is to pay attention to your child and the people in your
child's life. Gavin de Becker sensibly reminds us that "[c]hildren
require the protection of adults, usually from adults. Their fear of
people is not yet developed, their intuition not yet loaded with
enough information and experience to keep them from harm." There are
many demands placed upon our time, but nothing—nothing—is more
important than the welfare of our children. When we blindly
surrender responsibility for them to others without question, we
invite trouble. Parents should know their child's teachers, coaches,
day care providers, youth group leaders, and other significant
adults in their lives. Make unannounced visits. Ask questions. Stay
And please—talk to your children.
Teach them to recognize grooming behavior. Teach them to be wary of
any physical contact initiated by an adult. And teach them to trust
you with their problems and their pain. The safest child is the
child who knows he can bring his problems and concerns to parents
and adult caregivers without reproach or retaliation.