The lesson for the day dealt with good touch and bad touch. Candace Gomber, the head teacher at the Lincoln Child Development Center in Santa Monica, used a puppet named Ali to tell a sensitive story about sex abuse to a group of 3- and 4-year-olds:
Little Rosa was spending the night with her baby sitter Tom, a big boy from the neighborhood. Rosa's mother always told her to mind her baby sitter, but one night Tom told Rosa he would let her stay up late to watch television if she played a secret touching and undressing game with him. Rosa wanted to stay up, but she did not want to take off her clothes and play the touching game.
"Is that game OK?" Gomber asked the children.
"No!" they all shouted.
"What should Rosa say?"
" 'No! Stop it!' "
"She should tell him, 'I don't want anybody touching my private parts,' "one child said.
"She should tell her mother," another one blurted.
"Who owns your body?" Gomber asked.
"Me!" they all said.
The 10-minute talk is one of several lessons given each week to children 2 to 5 years old as part of a new "personal safety" curriculum at the center. Parents, teachers and administrators said the program gives young children a means of protecting themselves against sexual molestation.
Gomber said the curriculum does not attempt to teach sex education to preschool children, but to teach them to trust their feeling. "If something doesn't feel right, they have a right to say no," she said. "The goal is not to scare children about being touched by adults, but we are trying to help kids develop a healthy sense of intimacy."
But a healthy sense of intimacy is difficult to define and many experts have words of caution about "good touch, bad touch" programs.
Hershel K. Swinger, director of the state-funded Southern California Child Abuse Prevention Center at California State University, Los Angeles, said, "They are asking children to make sophisticated judgments based on their perception of the touch.
"We don't want them to be so fearful of adults that they don't develop natural human feelings and respect for adults. We also know that most of the sexual abuse is not done by strangers, but by family members, but I don't think anyone is willing to say don't let a family member touch you."
Charles Pace, the coordinator of Saint John's Hospital and Health Center's child abuse treatment program, introduced the curriculum to parents and teachers last year at the Lincoln and John Adams Child Development centers, which are part of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. The two preschool child-care centers have a combined enrollment of more than 100 children.
Teachers, who are required by law to report all suspected cases child molestation to police or child protective agencies, need training in how to identify and handle such cases, he said. It is a problem that few people have been able to discuss openly.
"Most schools teach where a child's hand is and his head, but nothing about the genitals," Pace said. "Children need to feel comfortable expressing themselves and using words like penis and vagina."
Pace introduced the teachers to the program through a series of seminars during the summer. Parents were given lectures in November and the children started their lessons last month.
The lessons are presented as simple stories told by a puppet, illustrated with pictures and concluded with discussion. Children are taught how to determine a good touch from a bad touch, how to say no and the importance of reporting the incident.
The curriculum is divided into three major areas:
- The "touching" unit teaches children how to distinguish between a good touch and a bad touch. Children are taught the difference between touches that make them feel good, such as hugs, kisses and pats on the back, and those that make them feel bad or confused--hitting, spanking and pushing. The children are told that someone else touching their "private parts" is bad touch. Their private parts are defined as the area of their bodies covered by a swim suit.
- The "saying no" segment teaches them that they have a right to say no if they don't like what they feel. "It teaches them how to be assertive if they feel their rights have been violated," Pace said. "If they don't like it, they should feel entitled to say no and not have an adult affront their authority."
- The "telling" unit teaches children to report bad touches to their teacher or parents. "They should continue to talk about it until they find someone who will listen," Pace said.
Dr. Michael Durfee, a child psychiatrist who coordinates the county Health Department's child abuse prevention program, said he was in favor of the program, but warned that "it's a simple formula that some people feel is going to stop a complex problem.