As I stood in the school uniform queue with my son, a large gentleman came up from behind and pushed him aside. Not rough, but certainly without permission. As I flared in anger, as most mothers would, a part of me wondered – was it just the rudeness of the gesture that bothered me? Or was it something more? The words that came out of my mouth said that it was not just about queueing up, fairness, turn taking or even pushing and shoving.
Loudly, clearly and coldly, I asked, “Sir, do you have permission to touch my child? “
The stunned silence around told me that this was not a thought that had struck the innocent parents around me. On second thoughts, could the silence mean that they had seen children being touched in ways they should not have and had learnt to keep quiet about it? The man blustered his way through, and the cracked moment was gone. But the cracks, I hoped, had opened something.
How does a child know whether the touch is good or bad when all they have been taught is trust? Should a child be taught to mistrust everybody around them? As a parent my answer is – I am confused. As a teacher, I have to have a solution. There are books and training manuals. And regulations all over the world. I can run workshops on best practices for teachers. But how do I break that silence?
To break the silence is to break the presumption of universal innocence.
Till we are all quiet, we can all live in this happy world where are children are safe. But they are not. I wish they were, but they may be innocent and happy, but they are not safe. The fine line here is between awareness and fear. This is not a casual conversation to be had in passing between the shopping trip and the dinner party – even if you stage it in that manner. This is a tightrope walk, and one that needs a team. It is not up to the parent alone to take on this tricky talk, but the teacher team and the extended family also needs to be involved in this conversation.
We do like to think of our children as innocent of all the evil in the world, but if a significant proportion of them have been abused, as the data being shared this month shows us, then this innocence is only a dust sheet to protect us from the horrible truth. That they know, know little and need to know more. It is a terrible thing to tear away this trust in the goodness of people, but if we don’t, then we would have failed as teachers and parents – we would have failed in protecting them.
We will have to break the silence.
Schools and teachers are afraid to start the conversation. Most fear parents. The outrage that the parents will share for ‘corrupting’ their children. Parents do have a right to decide what to tell their children. But does that right become more important than their children’s safety?
Putting children first. Nothing else matters.
The only question is how.
This is not for parents or teachers alone to resolve. Children confide in people they trust, and these adults must be prepared lest they respond insensitively and scare the child off. The worst thing to do would be to refuse to believe the child or to laugh it off. The child is hurt, scared, lonely and is asking for help! To laugh is to almost push them back to a vulnerable position again. It validates the perpetrator’s – ‘who will believe you if you say something against me’ claim. Never laugh at a child. Never ignore their tales. However farfetched or sketchy.
Organise parent workshops. Teachers and schools may find it difficult to speak directly to students for fear of parental backlash. So, start by talking to parents. Address their concerns. Tell them what to look out for – the dreams, the bedwetting, the secretive habits, the unexplained sores. Parents often do not know what to watch out for, nor do they know what to do with the information they have gleaned. Hushing things up is clearly not the right thing to do, but that is most likely to happen. No. Show them the options they have – how to respond, what to say, who to turn to, what questions to ask, how to gain support, how to build secure homes for their children, how to help the children recover and learn to say NO.
Share Stories. Speak of incidents that have happened recently. The children are talking about it anyway. It would be good to have a mature hand lead the discussion, a light touch to pain and insecurity and a chance to let children open up. Especially the ones who need to speak. Share movies and stories about children being attacked – open up channels for the children to share. So many of our ‘fairy’ tales are cautionary and are perfect to start a conversation. Little Red Riding Hood and what the wolf really stands for is a great story as are others.
Seek Professional Help. It is okay to seek professionals. They can help. They can find a path through the horror, and the darkness. Call them in, you are not alone. Call in the professionals to train your teachers in appropriate communication. Let teachers not fumble and try to figure it out on the run when an incident is reported. It is better for them to go in prepared – they do less damage that way, and can even help.
And teachers, as ever, plan ahead. Plan a lesson about abuse so that the children in your care know what to hold off. And how to hold off. Try, so that they can try to protect themselves. To get started, here are some sample lesson plans:
Sexual Abuse Awareness: http://www.officeoflifelongfaithformation.org/CurriculumGuides/SexualAbuseAwarenessMandates.aspx
There are many lesson plans and discussion forums for teachers online. Teacher mentor networks can also help find better resources. Do please, teachers and parents, invest in your child’s safety. And the only protection is by breaking the silence.
This has been written to support Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month.