The horror at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles has my blood boiling, to say nothing of my stomach turning in disgust. The story is still unfolding, layers added every day. (A 30 year veteran third grade teacher, uncovered by a photo lab technician who alerted police to photos of children blindfolded and/or gagged, some with cockroaches on their faces, being fed a white milky substance found to be the teachers’ semen, was arrested after a year’s investigation.) Each aspect of this heinous crime is worthy of attention. Today I am laser focused on one thing: the counselor who blew off two children’s reports of their teacher’s strange behavior, saying, “You must be imagining it.”
In seminars across the country, parents flock to learn how to keep their children safe. While our world is set up for safety, with people whose specific job is safety (police officers, fire fighters, crossing guards, security guards), with laws and measures whose purpose is safety and well-being (seatbelts, inoculations, hand washing), no one is ever completely safe, including our children. For this reason alone, we must “prepare the child for the path and not the path for the child” as I have drilled countless times.
How do we arm our children without alarming them?
From as young as two years old, children need to be taught safety measures that fall under the category of “Family Safety Rules.” Safety seminars have long lists of these rules that become part of a child’s everyday life—from children under 10 years not answering the front door without an adult to how to walk safely to school. But there is more–these are basic safety behaviors for all children and for adults.
Children need to pay attention to their gut
Children need to be taught to pay attention to their feelings and their instincts about people and environments. This is a tough one because children’s development and temperament influence their feelings and behaviors. The “shy” child recoils when someone looks at him funny; the child with separation anxiety sees all people through the intruder filter. Children need to learn to pay attention when something makes them feel uncomfortable, to notice when things seems different, unusual, strange, maybe not as they should be, or even just new. And then they need to tell a parent or a different adult. The adult will sort it out.
After the fact, one Miramonte student reported that the teacher in question was her only teacher who ever locked his door. That was different and should have been reported.
Two other children did report to their counselor that their teacher had his hands under his desk in his lap a lot; they thought it was strange. Good for them! But they were not heard or honored.
Adults need to listen to children
Children do not lie about these sorts of things. While they may not be giving an accurate description, they do not lie. It is a parent’s, teacher’s, school administrator’s job to hear the child, regardless of what he is saying. Too often an adult downplays or disregards a child’s comment, thinking it can’t be so. Sometimes the adult is deaf to something he doesn’t want to hear, even responding with anger. We want our children to talk to us, so we must listen to them and welcome their observations and comments.
As my colleague, Dr. Ian Russ, says, “Children always tell the truth. You just have to figure out what the truth means.” The Miramonte school counselor did not do her job. She should have applauded the children’s stepping forward and dug deeper to discover what their truth was. Clearly, it was not their imagination.
Children’s feelings should not be undermined.
Saying “You shouldn’t feel that way” or “Oh c’mon, that didn’t scare you” teaches a child not to trust his own feelings and perceptions. In order to pay attention to his gut, a child’s feelings must be honored.
Communication is the key
Even “important” people, those in authority positions or trusted adults, might give a child a funny feeling or behave in unusual or unexpected ways—clergy, coaches, teachers, relatives, neighbors. No matter who it is who causes “that feeling” in the child, a different adult needs to be told.
Ask a child what he did at school and you will hear “Nothing “ or “I played.” Sharing the news of his day is often not a child’s strong suit. But in order for adults to keep children safe, they need to know what is happening. A child must be clear that adults always want to hear what is going on, even the things that make the child uncomfortable or worried, big or small. Welcome the communication, regardless of the size or importance. You will be the judge.
While your parents may have believed that children should be seen and not heard, today’s children must be seen and heard. It is the key to their safety.