“You can’t guarantee a child is safe anywhere.”
For Barbara Wright, principal of Cambridge Street Community Public School, that’s why it’s important to teach children about adults who wish to harm them. From as young as kindergarten age, the children are taught a few simple phrases in case someone tries to touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable: “Feeling yes, feeling no.” “No, go tell.”
“It’s certainly the only thing you can do for a child. You want to make sure they know what to do. That’s their greatest protection,” says Wright.
Most elementary schools in Ottawa now have programs for young children on how to deal with potential situations of child sexual abuse. Many of them start in the first few grades with a simple description on how to recognize and handle uncomfortable situations. As the children get older, they are taught the issue of sex abuse in increasing complexity.
But teaching children at such a young age raises problems of its own. Kohar Polimenakos, a Children’s Aid Society supervisor, says talking to a child about sexual abuse when he or she is too young to understand sex doesn’t do much good.
“It’s traumatizing for them, especially if they have no idea what you’re talking about and you’re talking to them about prevention.”
In fact, warns Dr. Truda Rosenberg, a family psychologist who has worked on abuse cases, poor education might be worse than no education.
“There is always a danger that you may make the child suspicious of their own parents, their own family,” she says. For example, there are fathers who abuse their children, but fathers can also be naturally very close and affectionate with their child.
“How can you educate a child to distinguish between what is love and what is sexual abuse when a child is three or four?” she says.
The problem is that child abuse quite often does happen at the hands of family or friends.
Polimenakos says in 85 per cent of abuse cases, the abuser and the child have some kind of relationship. In the majority of those cases, it is someone who the child trusts. Usually, abusers have paid a lot of attention to the child and won his or her affection.
Research shows sexual abuse can happen even to toddlers and infants. “It can happen from the word go,” Dr. Rosenberg says.
And that’s why it’s important for parents to start talking to their children about it even before they reach school age, says Polimenakos.
“Sexual abuse and secrecy are bookends. Children don’t tell people about the fact they’re being sexually abused because they feel there’s some secrecy about it.”
Mars Bottiglia, a commissioner of the Ottawa-Carleton Catholic School Board, is well aware of that problem.
“As early as Grade 1 we have a program,” says Bottiglia. “We feel it’s important as soon as we have them in a formal education setting, we make that part of our program.”
Child sexual abuse has been addressed in Catholic School classrooms for about 15 years. In the earlier grades, it falls under safety education rather than sex education, sidestepping the issue of sex altogether.
Using dolls and pets, Grade 1 children are shown where it is acceptable to be touched, and taught what constitutes someone interfering with their privacy. As they get into higher grades, it becomes related to the issue of sex.
“We don’t always want to relate it to a sexual act because sometimes it’s not a sexual act. We focus or zero in on appropriateness.”
Bottiglia says some parents initially disapproved of their young children learning about sexual abuse. After being encouraged to particpate in the program, the concern abated and there’s only been one comlaint this year.
“Even though we are a Catholic organization, for the most part they are supportive.”
The key to successful education is making sure it is appropriate to the age of the child, says Polimenakos.
When children begin to develop language skills, you can teach them about boundaries, she says. For example, when you’re giving a child a bath, you can tell them what is private about their bodies and let them wash those areas.
“That’s how you start at the beginning,” says Polimenakos.