The first thing I noticed when I got home from work was a big, round, white sticker on Katie's sweater.
"Where'd you get the sticker?" I asked.
"In Ms. V's class." Katie's voice was muffled in my jacket as she gave me a welcome home hug.
"What were you doing in Ms. V's class?"
"Listening to Happy Bear talk to us." She traced her finger around the edges of the sticker on her chest.
I had a vague understanding of this Happy Bear fellow. While conducting research for a patron at work, I stumbled upon this play produced by Sunflower House. It is designed for young children to educate them about personal safety. Here's a blurb from the "about us" section of their website:
Sunflower House is a non-profit, United Way agency serving Wyandotte and Johnson Counties in Kansas. Our mission is to protect children in our community from physical and sexual abuse through education, advocacy, forensic and medical services.
Here's information from their website about the play:
A delightful, interactive play for children ages 4-7. Implemented in more than 200 elementary schools and preschools in Johnson and Wyandotte Counties, this 25-minute program addresses recognizing welcome and unwelcome touches, practicing resistance skills, and learning to report to a trusted adult.
I'd heard of this organization's work, but I wanted to see what Katie thought of it, so I asked, "Who's Happy Bear, some kind of puppet?"
"No, he's some kind of person. In a big bear costume," Katie explained.
"I see. What was he talking about?" I was trying not to laugh at the "some kind of person" comeback.
"He talked about welcome and unwelcome touches and how it's my body and I can say no and step away if I don't want an unwelcome touch." Katie finally took a breath. "But I knowed that, Mom. You tell me I'm the boss of my body all the time."
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I can't tell you how relieved I am that Katie "knowed" that. I wonder how my life would have been different had I knowed it too, if I got to see this play when I was six. I had already been sexually abused by then, but I wonder if I would have felt more encouraged to talk about it and let go of the shame I held on to for far too many years. I'm glad I have resources such as this play to help break the cycle of abuse so my daughter never knows such horrors. That's what all parents want for their children, isn't it? To not have to go through what we went through.
If you'd like to watch the play with your child so you can discuss the issues of personal space, welcome and unwelcome touches, that it's OK to say no, and other issues regarding personal safety, the video clips are below. My one complaint is that the educator uses the term "vagina" for generic female private parts, when the actual term is "vulva". As the great Harriet Lerner, who has been raising vulva consciousness since the 70's reminds us, if we can't name our body parts, how can we feel ownership of our bodies?
As Harriet Lerner states in this piece:
"It is true that Americans do not excise the clitoris and ablate the labia, as is practiced in other cultures on countless girls and women. Instead, we do the job linguistically -- a psychic genital mutilation, if you will. Language can be as powerful and swift as the surgeon's knife. What is not named does not exist."
It's a baby step using an imprecise word, but still, whatever you want to call our anatomy, at least it's no longer so private we can't talk about it enough to empower our children. Good job, Sunflower House!
Guess who's reading my blog now? None other than the amazing Dr. Harriet Lerner herself! I am so honored. And, in her forthright way, she called me out on my linguistic blunder.
Dr. Lerner: "Loved this piece, except for last paragraph which undoes the point. Men wouldn't be pathetically grateful for a culture which confused a penis with a testicle. "Vagina" isn't a vague word. It's a precise word that is misused because people can't say vulva when they mean just that. Here's letter to the editor I wrote, published in New York Times recently..."
She couldn't leave the link in the comments section because, well, I love you Blogger but your comments section sucks. And I'm just not tech savvy enough to fix it. No biggie. I'll share the link here.
I appreciate Dr. Lerner's honest feedback. Especially this: "Men wouldn't be pathetically grateful for a culture which confused a penis with a testicle." So true! Now that I re-read this post it does seem like I'm backpedaling. It shows how even seasoned feminists like myself too easily slip into society's patriarchal muck without thinking. Vagina certainly is a precise word and it is used imprecisely in this instructional video reaching students "in more than 200 elementary schools and preschools in Johnson and Wyandotte Counties". If we're going to teach our kids about half the population's anatomy we've got to stop pussy-footing around.
V-U-L-V-A. It's a lovely word for a beautiful body part our society has kept linguistically under cover far too long.
Thank you, Dr. Lerner for teaching, and re-teaching, this lesson until we finally get it right. The silence surrounding the gross misnaming of female anatomy from most professionals is astounding. I applaud Dr. Harriet Lerner's tenacious advocacy of the vulva.
Now, to contact Sunflower House to see about updating these videos...