I picked up my seven-year old daughter early from school one day not too long ago. “How was your day?” I asked, as she buckled herself securely into her booster seat. The key was in the ignition, and my brain had already sent the signal to my hand to turn it, when she replied,
“OK. Except that X touched me inappropriately this morning.”
We were running late for the appointment, but I did not start the car. Instead, I turned around and looked at her. She sat placidly in the backseat, the afternoon sun backlighting her golden curls like an angel’s aura. She gazed at me innocently with her big blue eyes. She didn’t look at all upset.
“Tell me what happened,” I said.
My voice sounded much calmer than I expected. It certainly didn’t convey what I was feeling. When you are a parent, and your most important job in life is to protect your kid, it is terribly disconcerting – not to mention heartrending – to hear her say something like this. I wanted to scream, “Who in the world would have the audacity to touch MY CHILD inappropriately?!?!”
Somehow, I stayed calm and delved for facts. She answered each question fully and calmly. Here is a summary of what she told me and what I wrote in an email to her teacher later that night:
My daughter told me that X has been touching her a lot and making her feel uncomfortable. She said on Friday that he was rubbing her upper thighs and touched her briefly in the bathing suit area. She said that it is usually during circle time that this happens, so she tries not to sit near him. I told her to tell you immediately the next time it happened, but I would appreciate it if you could keep an eye out for this behavior and help her avoid it.
I did not include this in the email, but she also told me that she always asked her friends to sit around her at circle time, a perimeter of girlfriend protection.
Up until last year, I think my reaction might have been different – more anger than the deep sadness that I was feeling. But after I wrote (and Time published) the How to Raise Boys Not To Be Total Jerks piece about my reaction when my son told a sexist joke, I heard from dozens of women about their experiences with inappropriate touching, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse. Women of all ages, ethnicities and occupations, shared their experiences from all over the world. A couple of medical professionals even told me about patients who had touched them inappropriately during medical examinations. The sad truth is that these are experiences that are all too common for girls and women throughout the world. I realized, sitting there in the car with my key in the ignition, that this was only the beginning for my second grade daughter.
In those few seconds before normality returned and we drove on to the orthodontist, I saw an image of myself in the second grade. An image, like I was watching from above, of myself at the age of 7, pinned down in the dust on the playground at Magnolia Woods Elementary School by a boy who easily weighed twice as much as me. I had not thought of it in more than 30 years, but now I had a sudden, strong remembrance of the feeling of being panicked and trapped, as he sat heavily on my chest and held my wrists down on either side of my head.
I had thought that we were playing chase at recess; HE told me that we were playing kissing chase. He demanded that I hold still so he could kiss me – he caught me, so it was his right. A kiss was the price of my freedom. I remember thrashing, kicking, rolling my head and arching my back, all to no avail. A crowd of first and second graders gathered to watch. I think they were cheering him on.
The school may have taken its name from magnolia trees, but I frankly don’t remember any. There were crepe myrtle trees all along the walkway where we second graders lined up to enter our classrooms. Small tree frogs congregated there; they seemed to have no purpose in life other than to sing happily and spit down on us. A certain times in the year, the crepe myrtles’ strange, pink blossoms – which looked like something right out of Dr Seuss – covered the trees. Pink petals blanketed the sidewalk where we second graders lined up.
As I struggled to break free from this boy, oh how I longed for the crepe myrtle trees and the safety of my classroom door! I pictured myself running, as fast as I could, to that safe spot. Instead, I lay on my back, trapped, in the dust on the playground, trying not to see the boy’s face hovering inches above me. Looking instead for the freedom above me, in the bright blue of a Louisiana winter sky and a canopy of towering swamp oaks.
I have no complaints about the way my daughter’s school responded. The teacher replied within a few hours and forwarded the information on to the school principal and social worker. First thing on Monday morning, the social worker interviewed both students. By Monday afternoon, they had put place a six point plan of strategies to ensure the safety of all of the second graders. The school social worker laid it out for me:
1) I will speak to all of the 2nd grade classrooms about appropriate interactions.
2) All students will be reminded to tell an adult as soon as something happens so we will be able to address it.
3) Teachers will be vigilant and observant in the classrooms for appropriate student interactions.
4) The playground staff will closely monitor for concerning behavior.
5) Seating assignments will be made based on student needs.
6) Students who cannot follow the rules will be seated next to the teacher.
The school social worker also said, “Please acknowledge your daughter for telling you, so you could inform us.”
When my daughter got home from school the next day, she reported that all six points of this plan had already been implemented.
“I’m proud of you for telling me. It was the right thing to do,” I said.
“I know,” she sighed. “Everyone keeps telling me that! I’m getting kind of tired of hearing about it.”
But here’s the thing. Statistics on sexual abuse in children are hard to come by because the majority of cases are never reported to authorities (estimates on reporting range from between only 12% (see Hanson, 1999) and 30% of cases (Finkelhor, 2008)). Based on reporting percentages, the real number of cases of sexual abuse could be anywhere from 260,000-650,000 kids a year. To put it another way, as many as one in three girls and one in seven boys in the United States will be sexually abused at some point in their childhood.
I’m not suggesting that what my daughter (or I) experienced was sexual abuse. But it was an assault – and definitely a wake up call to my daughter’s vulnerability to the potential of something much worse. I don’t know the little boy who I call X here. I’ve also been around kids enough to know that second graders get squirrelly. Sometimes, especially in close quarters, they have trouble keeping their hands to themselves. I’m not willing to make any assumptions about this kid or speculate that his behavior is a sign that he will grow up to be a sexual predator. But research shows that 40 percent of child sex abuse is committed by other children or adolescents. In fact, as many as 50 percent of those who sexually abuse other children are under the age of 18. These are facts that I did not know before.
When the recess bell rang and that boy got off of me, I sprinted for my second grade classroom door. I got there before any of the other kids and put my face against the glass window to cool my cheeks, which were burning with shame and embarrassment. For the next week or so, I spent recess in different part of the playground, doing penny flips on the monkey bars. When I finally went back to playing chase, I made sure that I ran as fast as I could so I would never get caught. For the rest of my time at Magnolia Woods, I was careful to keep away from that boy. But I never told a single person – not my friends, not my teacher, not my parents – about him holding me down and trying to kiss me. Not even when I saw him do the same thing to other girls.
So I’m thankful that my daughter told me about what happened to her. And I’m thankful that the school took quick and decisive action, reinforcing the message for all of the kids and staff that school is a place where everyone has a right to feel safe. I’m especially thankful that something worse did not happen to my daughter, but also that this experience has left her better prepared for the future.
Child sexual abuse happens in all racial, religious, ethnic and age groups, and at all socio-economic levels. Talk to your daughters and your sons about appropriate v. inappropriate touching, as well as what to do if it happens to them – or if they see it happening to someone else. If you’ve talked to them about it once, then do it again. Kids need to hear it again as they move through their various developmental stages. If you feel uncomfortable, just remember that what you are doing is preparing your kids to protect themselves, something they will have to do for the rest of their lives.
Resources about identifying signs of and avoiding child sexual abuse can be found at Stop It Now. If you know of other good resources, please feel free to add them in the comments.