Program teaches children self-reliance in abusive times

July 26, 1992|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Staff Writer

WESTMINSTER -- What is a good touch, and what is a bad one? And what do you do about the ones you just can't sort out?

Two children's programs, presented by the Rape Crisis Intervention Service, dealt with those questions Wednesday night at the Westminster Public Library.

The first, "It's My Body, It Belongs to Me," was geared to children age 3 to 5; first-, second- and third-graders attended "A Talk with Kids about Sexual Abuse." Each program involved both parents and children.

"We're trying to get the fear and distrust out of our teaching," said Diana Steppling of the Rape Crisis Intervention Service. "That's a form of abuse in itself. We're trying to teach self-reliance and communication instead."

For example, both programs stressed that some forms of touch -- such as hugs -- are good and wanted. Others, such as hair pulling and pinching, are bad. The child, no matter what age, is capable of telling the difference and deciding how and with whom he wants to "share" his or her body.

"Children that are even younger than you know when something is not right," Ms. Steppling told the 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds attending the second program. "They may not know exactly what is wrong, but they do know that they want the other person to stop.

"That's the 'uh-oh' feeling, our radar that tells us something isn't right."

While the first program vaguely discussed "uncomfortable" touches and taught children to firmly say "Stop. I don't like that," the second focused on two "What if" situations -- a neighbor continuing to brush an imaginary spider off 6-year-old Susie's chest and Uncle Joe slipping his hand between 8-year-old Jane's legs as he took her to get ice cream.

In both cases, the children unanimously agreed they should tell their parents, even if they know the person. In fact, only 5 percent of child-molestation cases occur between strangers, Ms. Steppling said.

"Children don't understand abuse, but they understand unfair," she said. "We always tell them, 'It's never your fault,' as children are often made to feel guilty in abuse cases. 'You didn't do anything wrong, the other person did.' "

Ms. Steppling, a former physical education teacher, stressed that educators no longer tell children that all physical contact is bad, since that upsets and confuses them. In one case, a child Ms. Steppling was teaching to do push-ups became very disturbed when she simply tapped his hips to show him the correct position.

"I felt very sad for him, because he was upset by a helping, teaching touch," she said. "We don't want [children] to be afraid of that because we all really need to be touched."

As a whole, parents said they were pleased with the discussions.

"[The program] is a good thing," said Theresa Collins, who broughther 4-year-old, Ashley, to the first presentation. "My daughter is starting preschool in the fall and activities where she will be away from me, so I think she should be aware of these things."

For Paula Parker, taking her daughters to the presentation was one step in preventing what happened to her as a child.

A victim of abuse herself, Ms. Parker said the memories came flooding back when her eldest, Siobhan, turned 8. Her younger daughter, Carolanne, is 6.

"This [program] is wonderful and every child should have this opportunity," Ms. Parker said. "I never had this. No one ever told me it was OK to say 'No.' I never told and no one ever asked."

She also felt that the programs were appropriate for the advertised ages.

"[Ms. Steppling] was right on for the age level," Ms. Parker said. "She is very well-informed."

Ms. Collins, who before attending had been concerned that the program might be too explicit, agreed.

"It was handled tastefully," Ms. Collins said. "I can carry it from here."

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