Where’s Your Winker?

When our eldest daughter was not yet four years old, we had a shared babysitting arrangement with the couple across the street from us.  Their young son would stay overnight with us when they were away, and they would reciprocate when we needed help.

At our place, we often put the two kids in the tub together at bedtime and watched them splash around for awhile before bathing them.  They were good pals, used to playing together, and the bathroom was always filled with squeals of delight and happy splashing.

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We were surprised one evening, though, when the little boy had a new question for our daughter.  “Where’s your winker?” he asked.  We understood immediately what he was enquiring about (in all innocence), but she didn’t.

We had to stifle our laughter when she began scrunching up her face in an attempt to wink at him.  He kept asking, and she kept winking, first one eye, then the other.

I don’t recall now if he ever got an answer to his question, but what my wife and I realized was that his parents had chosen not to use anatomically-correct terms for his sexual body-parts, at least not at that age.  We had no problem with that—he was their son, after all—but we had deliberately opted to do it differently.

Unlike some of our friends, we began almost immediately with both our daughters to use correct terminology for all their body-parts.  Nose wasn’t sniffer, for example, nor hands feelers.  Their stomachs weren’t tubbies, nor their toes piggies—except in the nursery-rhyme they came to love.

In the same way, their anus wasn’t a poo-poo bum, and their urethral opening wasn’t a pee-hole.  A bowel movement was just that, or a BM, but never a shit.  And they always used a toilet, never a toidy—even when they had their own mini-version.

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By the time both our daughters were in mid-elementary school, they knew the correct names, and were aware of the differences between female and male anatomies.  They knew, for instance that Daddy had a penis, but they and Mummy had vaginas instead; that all of us had breasts and nipples, but theirs, unlike mine, would grow larger as they got older; that pubic hair was normal for everyone beyond a certain age.

As time went on, as it became appropriate for them to know, they learned other terms, too—testicles, scrotum, clitoris, vulva—and were unembarrassed about them.  That was a critical point for us, that they would not giggle nervously, or be mortified to ask us, when they began to have questions about their burgeoning sexuality.

Even after a certain, respectful distance had developed between me and them as they matured into young women, they remained unafraid to engage both of us in their conversations on sexual matters.

Along the way, we tried to ensure they understood that certain body parts were private—whatever is covered by your bathing-suit, we told them.

We didn’t ignore the fact that people often use different terminology, however.  In order that our girls not appear unduly geeky to their friends, we made sure they knew about various slang-terms they might hear for female parts, even as we encouraged them not to use them.  Such terms included: vajayjay, muff, pussy, beaver, hooters, knockers, or jugs.  We wanted them to be, not shocked or judgmental when they heard these words, but aware and prepared.

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The sex curriculum in schools today, at least in progressive districts, uses correct terminology.  In the jurisdiction we live in, the objective is to promote physical and emotional health and safety, wholesome relationships, and mutual respect among the learners.  The curriculum deals with such issues as:  stages of childhood development, naming body parts accurately, puberty, personal hygiene, the reproductive system, sexual orientation, choosing wisely about sexual activity, STD’s, pregnancy prevention, relationships and intimacy, consent and personal limits, and mental health.

Many parents today believe that schools are not the places where such instruction should be given.  The child’s parents should be the ones to do that, they say, and in the child’s home.  Some of our politicians, vying for election, are pandering to such folks by threatening to rescind the curriculum.

The problem with that, as I see it, is that too many parents would not provide their children with an adequate sex education—perhaps because it contradicts their beliefs, perhaps because they find it embarrassing, or perhaps because they, themselves, don’t know how.  But their children will learn of these things, regardless, and their instructors will be schoolmates, video-games, internet porn purveyors, or other unscrupulous parties.

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How is that better for children?

And that is the question that should always be at the forefront.  Too often, we make decisions on behalf of children for reasons that are not in their best interest, but instead, to justify our own opinions and beliefs.

From the vantage point of a grandfather now, I can agree that home might be the best place for children to learn what they need to know about their sexual beings, just as I believed—and put into practice—when I was a young father.  But what of those homes where it will not happen, and what of the children who live in those homes?  Do they not deserve the opportunity to acquire the same knowledge, the same self-respect, the same appreciation of others’ circumstances granted to those in homes where the information is provided?

Do they not deserve the same opportunity to protect themselves and their bodies from those who would prey upon them?

My daughter still laughs when we recall the winker story, even though she doesn’t really remember the bathtub encounter.  But never once in their lives has either of our girls had to plead ignorance or embarrassment when conversations of a sexual nature have arisen among their friends.  They’ve always known the truth.

And now, thanks to their parenting, so do our grandchildren.

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Addressing Sexual Misconduct

Over the past several months, it appears the floodgates have opened on revelations of sexual misconduct, some reaching into the highest corridors of power.

But these are revelations only.  The actual offenses have been going on, largely unreported, for longer than any of us would care to admit.  And that makes it all the more important to take action whenever such allegations surface.

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Some twenty years ago, during the last decade of my working career, I held three senior positions:  superintendent of personnel in a large school board, and then chief executive in two different school jurisdictions.  During that time, I had to deal with a dozen cases of reported sexual misconduct by employees.

The range of offenses included sexual harassment, sexual interference, sexual assault, solicitation of sexual favours, and the exploitation of students in the making and distribution of child pornography.

All the perpetrators were men, either teachers or business/operations employees.  Their victims included adults and children of both genders.  In all but two cases, those children were under the age of seventeen.

Of course, that number of offenders constituted but a tiny fraction of the total of dedicated and professional staff we employed.  But any number is too many.

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Four of the situations resulted in criminal charges being laid against the wrongdoers by police, and all went to trial.  The remaining situations were dealt with internally, involving an array of sanctions ranging from formal reprimand to outright dismissal.  In two cases, after investigation by police and child welfare authorities, the accusers subsequently retracted their allegations and the accused parties were absolved—although with some collateral damage to their public reputation.

In all three jurisdictions we had clear policies in place to affirm the right of every student and every employee to a safe learning and work environment.  Those policies included a reporting mechanism available to any persons who felt they were victimized, or on whose behalf a report was made by a concerned third party.  They also spelt out procedures by which designated managers would shepherd each case to its conclusion.  In every case but two, proper procedures were followed.

Both those situations involved mistakes by two school principals (both of whom were acting in what they believed to be the best interests of their students, who were minors), who decided to investigate the reports of sexual misconduct themselves.  The policy clearly stated—in accordance with provincial law—that, in such situations, it is the duty of the responsible official to contact the police or child welfare authorities, who will handle the investigation.  The principals, whose performance records to that point were unsullied, erred badly.  They were subsequently charged, found guilty, and fined.  Duly reprimanded, they were eventually reinstated to their positions, presumably much the wiser.

One of the perpetrators in those two cases, a teacher, was subsequently cleared of wrongdoing.  The other, a custodian, was eventually charged by police and found guilty at trial.

The sexual harassment situations were investigated internally by my staff, and all parties were given the right to state their cases—although not face-to-face, unless the victims so chose.  In every case, the accused parties admitted to their actions, professed not to realize they had caused offense, expressed remorse, apologized, and vowed not to re-offend.  I issued formal, written reprimands to them and, following a suspension, they were also reinstated.  To my knowledge, there was no repeat of their behaviours.

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In three of the criminal cases, one perpetrator pled guilty, two (a teacher and the aforementioned custodian) were found guilty at trial, and jail sentences were imposed on all of them.  In each case, the school board terminated their employment and I reported the two teachers’ names to the ministry of education, which revoked their teaching certificates.

The fourth criminal case was dismissed by the judge at trial, where he deemed the Crown had failed to prove its case under the law.  That teacher, however, was dismissed by the school board even before the trial, because we had sufficient evidence to determine that he had behaved unprofessionally, without regard for the welfare of the seventeen-year-old student with whom he had engaged in sexual relations.  Whether or not the criminal justice system regarded him as a predator who should not be near vulnerable young people, the school board certainly did.

I subsequently reported that case to the provincial college of teachers (which, by then, had taken over the professional disciplinary role from the ministry).  The college did not revoke the teacher’s certificate—perhaps because he had been found not guilty of a criminal offense.  Those are two decisions I disagree with to this day.

In the two cases where accusers recanted—after sensitive counseling sessions with child welfare authorities—the accused teachers were returned to duty after having been assigned to a central-office work-site during the investigations.  The publicity surrounding their cases, however, had the unfortunate result of leaving them unfairly tarred by the brush of public opinion.

In the wake of the recent spurt of allegations of sexual misconduct against prominent men—and based upon these experiences of mine—it strikes me that we must, indeed, pay attention to every accuser’s claims.  Yes, some may be spurious, some even outright false, but there is no question that such abuses do exist in our schools and workplaces.

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It seems to me, as well, that there is a difference between the exposure of such misbehaviours, with a concomitant imposition of suitable, punitive measures (call that the ethical bar, to protect the most vulnerable among us), and the higher standard required for criminal prosecution (call that the legal bar of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt).  Everyone is entitled to his or her day in court if charges are laid.  But sadly, some predators are never charged.

Even more importantly, everyone is entitled to personal safety in their schools and workplaces.  People in authority must listen and give a voice to those who feel abused and disempowered.  Under my watch, some perpetrators, even if not guilty of offenses under ‘black letter’ law, were indeed guilty of sexual misconduct.  And so, the employer had to act, even if the courts did not.

I’m not sure we did everything right in the situations I encountered those many years back.  Despite our best intentions, people got hurt.  But the one thing we did not do is ignore the pleas for help.

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Nor should any of us now at this watershed moment in time.