How do I explain my father's pedophile actions to my young children?
October 4, 2006 8:55 PM   Subscribe

I severed contact with my father after discovery that he is a pedophile. My school aged children are now curious why they’ve never met him – how do I explain?

Many, many years ago my father was charged with indecent acts with a minor (with my siblings who were still at home) and sent me a letter detailing this. After a lot of deliberation, I chose to sever relations and contact with him simply out of a desire to protect my children. He appears to be a preferential pedophile (though I escaped abuse) and I don't want my kids exposed to potential harm. Though this is a lesser issue, I do not want him to be tempted by them. It’s worth noting that he has not tried to contact me all these years.

In an interesting twist, my oldest child came home with a school assignment on family history. (This might even count for a tie in to current affairs.) While we worked through this last night, it involved 'mapping' the family tree. I helped to complete it and he picked up on the fact my father is still alive and he’s never met him. While my children are old enough to know about ‘stranger danger’ and ‘inappropriate touching,’ I really don’t think they’re old enough to understand this whole sordid affair.

Any suggestions how I can explain this closeted skeleton without scaring them?

And... is there ever an age when I should encourage them (my kids, my father) to have a relationship?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think the answer to your second question is either when you feel that they're adults. 18 seems reasonable. That will have the dual effect of making sure they're mature enough to understand the situation, and making sure your father doesn't feel tempted by them.

I'll leave your first question to someone smarter than I am.
posted by danb at 9:04 PM on October 4, 2006

I think the answer to your second question is either when you feel that they're adults.
posted by danb at 9:05 PM on October 4, 2006

You don't say how old your kids are, since 'school aged' is quite a range.

However, it's probably a good time to talk about the dangers of people with bad intentions and, relatedly, mental health issues.

As far as when they can have a relationship: My vote is never. Blood ties don't mean that much, especially when a relative is a perpetrator of evil acts.
posted by Kickstart70 at 9:25 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

When the kids are adults, they can make the decision on whether or not to pursue a relationship with their grandfather. I would not encourage it.

I don't know when a good time to tell them specifically about their grandfather, but along with "stranger danger" you should be emphasizing to your kids that people that hurt them are most likely to be people they trust. Not to make them paranoid of all adults, but teach them to be aware and ready to actively defend themselves. And that nobody, no matter who they are, is allowed to touch them in a way they do not want to be touched, and if that happens they must tell an adult, no matter what the attacker says or who the attacker is. After all, if they tell an adult the adult will protect the child from any of the attacker's threats (well, hopefully).
posted by schroedinger at 9:33 PM on October 4, 2006

There have been many times in my adult life that I wished someone would have explained to me as a child that just because someone is related to you by blood that doesn't make them immune to hurting you, intentionally or unintentionally.

In other words, I always thought the adults in my life who were responsible for taking care of me were infallible. It was a very hard lesson to learn that they are not.

I wouldn't go into specifics — perhaps just say that he wasn't ready to be a father and he did some things that you didn't think were right, and so you decided to leave your relationship with him. Once they're older you can go into more detail.

Also note that, much like adoptive children, if they want to seek him out (now or later in life) they will find a way.
posted by Brittanie at 9:36 PM on October 4, 2006

What schroedinger said-- adding even if the attacker gives or offers candy, a toy or to take them someplace special, i.e. the local theme park, beach or garden.
posted by brujita at 9:38 PM on October 4, 2006

Any suggestions how I can explain this closeted skeleton without scaring them?

Scaring them of what, exactly? If it's your father, he's a pedophile, they're SUPPOSED to be scared of him. Simple, direct facts would help in explaining it the: he likes to hurt kids and you don't want your kids around him. If the kids have experience with a bad or manipulative teacher, use that as a comparsion. It might be good idea to have a talk with them anyway, to see what they know about the bad things in the world.

It would also be good to explain that having a bad relative doesn't make them bad, and that having sexual thoughts is ok, but hurting other people, especially children is not ok.

As to your second question, never encourage it, but if they want to seek it out on their own, once they're adults, that's up to them.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:38 PM on October 4, 2006

In answer to your first question, I would tell them the truth. Telling your kids about anything sets a dangerous foundation for their own decisions in their adult life. "If mum lied to me it must be OK to lie" will be their subconcious thought process. However, you don't have to be explicit. Just tell them that your father did something wrong and he's being punished for it. If they ask what he did wrong, the same advice applied. Truth, but no need to be explicit. Just say he touched some people he shouldn't have touched and now he's being punished.

This sets up a good basis for the answer to your second question. Firstly, I think there is an age when you could encourage them to have a relationship. When they're adults; around 17 or 18 at least. And because you told them the truth when they were younger, when you tell them the whole truth as adults, they amy even come to accept it more readily and they won't accuse you of hiding anything from them.
posted by Effigy2000 at 9:40 PM on October 4, 2006

If you want to lie to your kids about this (which I have no problem with) you could say that your father's in prison.
posted by 23skidoo at 9:49 PM on October 4, 2006

That should read "Telling your kids an untruth about anything ..."
posted by Effigy2000 at 9:52 PM on October 4, 2006

Be aware that any answer you give is likely to be processed by your children in terms of their relationship with you.

e.g. Explaining that 'My father did bad things and so I don't see him any more' may lead to children worrying 'If I do something bad, will you abandon me?' or 'Am I supposed to leave my parents if they do something bad?'

Thus it's important to emphasise that your father was cut off because
-he's an adult and he tries to hurt children very very badly
-he isn't sorry afterwards and doesn't want to change

Also emphasise that this was a very difficult decision, that you made because the only way to be completely sure that he wouldn't hurt your children was to avoid him.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 11:53 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Tell your children that your father has mental problems that make him incapable of behaving appropriately around kids. When they grow up, it'll be safer and they can choose to meet him if they desire to.

You can expand on the explanation of his mental problems as they get older.
posted by empyrean at 1:44 AM on October 5, 2006 [4 favorites]

My father had cut off contact with me until my son was 9 years old, and my son was curious, especially since we lived in the same town. I told partial truths ('too far'), but eventually got to telling the truth AND my feelings about it, AND that I didn't want to make with him the same mistakes my father made with me. Since then we've had quarterly restaurant meetings that usually leave me tweaked for a day, but I continue to try to be clear about why, for example, the hundred-dollar Christmas/birthday check makes me nervous.

Age-wise, I'm glad I kept my cards close until I thought my son had some base of understanding, which was around age 7 with lots of work.

My mother was found by her brothers, who were fostered out at childhood, and one was a pedophile. She went with complete cutoff, making it clear she did not want this crap in her life. I think we went with a 'bad-touch' explanation on this.

I would be concerned about a 'forbidden fruit' urge if you try to keep it too close. While you might be able to exclude contact from outside in (your father to your child), how do you get your child to not want to contact him?
posted by dragonsi55 at 4:51 AM on October 5, 2006

I would not presume to tell you what to do in this situation with your kids. Only you can gauge that.

I am facing a similar dilemma and plan to let the kids (if/when I have them) have limited contact in a controlled environment under constant supervision by me. Relative in question lives hundreds of miles away and will not be a local threat. He understands that contact is predicated on absolute compliance with my standards of behavior and conduct from him (this is something we've already established between the two of us). Including not inviting himself to anything else or seeking more contact.

I'm not bringing it up to them. Until they're old enough to handle it. My idea of this is their 20s, frankly, but it'll depend on the kid. They should know in general about the threat of sexual predators, but for me it's not worth it to create paranoia around this relative who I do not perceive as a threat. I have relatives that I never got to know, and I have always regretted that. I also was privy to a lot of family drama when I was little that I really didn't need to know about, and it was a burden that came with me into adulthood for many, many years.

I want to make clear that my answer is predicated on the fact that what my relative did happened in the past, and I'm not angry about it anymore. It doesn't affect me anymore. I can behave normally around him in a way that doesn't affect other people (kids, etc.). Do I think he has learned how to behave appropriately around other human beings of any age? Not really. But I think that under threat of no-contact he will abide by my stipulations and play nice. Only you can gauge this about the person in question. Like Samuel L. Jackson said in Jackie Brown, "I don't trust him, but I KNOW him." I know what to expect from him in terms of inappropriate behavior, and I will not let it happen around anyone I care about. If I decide that visiting time is over, that's it.

Anyway, this is the conclusion that I came to for my situation. I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all answer for this, so you'll have to make the decision for yourself.
posted by Marnie at 5:52 AM on October 5, 2006

If a kid listens to the news at all these days I'm sure they have a pretty good idea what a "pedophile" is. If you want to skirt embarrassment say he is sick and leave it at that. A kid's imagination can usually fill in the blanks.
posted by JJ86 at 6:11 AM on October 5, 2006

I'd keep it simple, honest and age appropriate. "Grandpa hurt children, so we don't see him." They're going to ask how, they're going to ask if he hurt you. You can be honest and say no, that he never hurt you, but you didn't want to take the risk with them, and you'll talk about how when they're older. End of subject.

I work with kids, with their ideas and fantasies* and concepts of the world. I assure you, even Stranger Danger-aged (what's that, 5-10?) kids call creepy grown-ups Chester the Molester without prompting at all. They may not have a finely-tuned sense of what that means, but they have an inkling. Give them some credit.

*Sounds creepy, huh? I'm a writer for a children's short film series. Kids send in their ideas, I turn them into a scripts, my production company goes on location and teaches the kids to make a movie. I get to see the insides of a lot of youthful heads.
posted by headspace at 6:35 AM on October 5, 2006

Sometime before I was born, my parents cut off contact with all but a few close relatives. Once I reached school age, I started wondering why other kids had grandparents who took them out shopping and came to their plays and took them fun places. I remember feeling that my parents' excuses were lame and selfish. My 7 year old self thought it was especially unfair that I couldn't decide if they were nice people for myself.

They used the "They're bad people, and we don't want you to be around them" line. With the lack of information, I linked the few stories mom and dad told about our relatives with WHY they were bad. They drank generic soda. They didn't always have enough food for all the kids. They made dad join the military when he was 18. Now, maybe those *were* the kind of reasons my parents disowned most of our relatives, but it made me grow up with the constant fear that I would do something bad and they'd never speak to ME again. This was a constant and very real fear.

If someone was a drug addict or a molester or mentally ill, I would have wanted to have learned that early on. Even if it was just "My dad is a criminal and he hurt some young kids, and I never want that to happen to you!" it would have saved me a lot of resentment and fear.

I still don't know why my parents chose to isolate me from my relatives, but I did end up meeting them (against my parents wishes) after I graduated high school. The reunion was a very powerful experience that helped me to understand mom-and-dad's personalities, and gave me some context for relating to them. I saw little bits of them in their relatives and, for the first time, I realized I wasn't so isolated. The family were warm and welcoming and didn't associate me with my parents' decision to not involve them in our life. I imagine this would have been different if there was ongoing mental illness or if they weren't looking forward to meeting me.

I hope there is another set of grandparents in your kids' lives. If not, I encourage you to make sure they have a close relationship with another older adult. There are some things kids need to learn (and experiences kids need to have) with that older generation.
posted by Gable Oak at 6:56 AM on October 5, 2006

I have to come down on the side of tell your kids something truthfull, and be direct. You don't have to be explicit, but as others here have noted being to circumspect with kids can lead to all sorts of misunderstands. Also as mentioned upthread you kind of do want your kids frightened, not traumatised mind you. I also think we, in general, are a little too sensitive to what may frighten a kid. You want to be sensitive but not overprotective as that just makes people more vulnerable in the long run.
posted by edgeways at 8:27 AM on October 5, 2006

I would tell your kids the truth and answer any questions that they may have but not volunteer anything, i.e. get too explicit. And you can continue to answer their questions as they get older and the questions get more complicated and/or detailed. They can make their own decisions to get in touch with him when they are older.
posted by dgeiser13 at 9:42 AM on October 5, 2006

I don't think you need to be specific at this stage in going through the details. Bear in mind that this is a school assignment and the 'findings' are likely to be discussed in the playground. Children have no boundaries in finding ways to make fun of their peers.

Obviously this is secondary to the main issue. I don't think it would hurt to simply say you made a decision not to stay in contact with your father for reasons that they might not be old enough to fully understand. I get the impression that you don't want to make your father out to be a 'monster' to them, so perhaps just say he is not a very nice person and leave it at that for now. They will learn the full story when they are old enough.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 4:17 PM on October 5, 2006

« Older Hourly rate for freelance Powerpoint massaging?   |   Save me from my Job! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.