Child counselor Barbara Filippone had just given the first- and second-graders at Cerritos Elementary School a revolutionary idea--that they can say no to a grown-up.
The idea was exciting, and for a minute Filippone faced a group of rebels ready to say no to adults for any reason, so she quickly complicated things with a question.
"What about when your mom says, 'Susie, you have to clean your room.' Can you say no to her?" Filippone asked. Some children said yes, but most became pensive.
"No, you can't say no then. Only if it's something that makes you feel bad in here," Filippone said, tapping her chest.
Some of the children seemed disappointed that they couldn't refuse to clean their room, but the real message stood intact: that they have the power and the right to stand up to adults who want to abuse them.
For Children and Adults
The message is part of a program Filippone and other counselors from the Cerritos Community Family Guidance Center are bringing to parents, children and teachers through local school districts. To the center, the program is a way of preventing child abuse by alerting children and adults to its warning signs.
For children, the program revolves around the film "Better Safe Than Sorry," which teaches children what to do if they think they or someone else is in danger of being abused.
In the film, actress Stephanie Edwards and six elementary school children imagine situations where an adult wants to touch the children in a way that doesn't make them feel good. In each situation, Edwards tells the children to say no to the adult.
The film avoids references to child abuse and bypasses graphic detail. It mentions only "good and bad touching," and shows adults doing things that even children can tell are not right.
In one scene, one of the children imagines she is walking home from school when a familiar neighbor asks her in for a glass of lemonade. She accepts, but the neighbor, claiming it is hot, begins to unbutton her blouse.
"It doesn't go so far," said Alex Morales, assistant director of the guidance center, "but it's clear about the intention, and we feel that even children at this age know that something is not right here."
Filippone's presentation reinforces the film. She tells children how to avoid bad touching, and to tell a trusted adult--a parent, teacher or police officer--if anyone tries to touch them or someone they know.
"What I do is not to talk to them about abuse, but to talk to them about safety," Filippone said.
Although both the film and the presentation talk about safety, Morales is confident that children, while perhaps not knowing about human sexuality, understand simple concepts like bad touching and understand why they should avoid it.
The first- and second-graders at Cerritos Elementary seemed to know that this strange touching is undesirable. When the film warned them against adults who want to undress and be touched, the children let out a nauseated "Ewwwhh!"
Rather than being concerned whether children will understand what abuse is, Morales and other counselors wonder if they might be planting fear in children's minds or forcing children to grow up too fast.
Morales said psychologists won't know for years if they are helping or hurting children by telling them they have to protect themselves. But based on past studies, he said, "what little we do know leads us to believe it's not good."
Children thrust into adult roles suffer psychological damage, Morales said. This often happens when children are forced to take over a household because one or both parents are afflicted by emotional problems or alcoholism.
However, even though counselors in the child-abuse program fear that they are asking children to act like grown-ups, Morales said, "We're not sure if the child sees this quite the way we see it."
Peril to Child Seen
There is also the possibility that children, because they think in absolutes, will think they cannot trust any adults, even though they are told that only very few adults want to harm them.
"What does it do to the psychological welfare of a child, that he may be told that he cannot trust anyone in the world, not even someone he loves?" Morales asked.
And in fact, in the film's last vignette, Edwards has the children imagine that an adult in their own house--"maybe even someone you love," Edwards says--wants to touch them.
There are dangers of bringing children up in a world of paranoia, making them afraid of adults and afraid of touching other people, but, Morales said, "we are convinced that this problem (child abuse) occurs with a very large frequency."
25% of Girls Abused
According to Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department statistics, one out of every eight or nine boys and one out of every three or four girls will experience some abuse during childhood.
"There are an awful lot of households where this is going to occur," Morales said.
Filippone said she tries to teach children that they can trust most adults, especially their parents and teachers. Adults who want to harm them, the program says, are ill and need help.
"It's not being distrustful, it's being sensible," she said.
Filippone, who lives in Cerritos, said her children have encountered potentially abusive situations twice in the past couple of years. "It happens," she said.
Filippone said she does not think the program removes children from the carefree paradise of childhood. "It doesn't say these kids can't have imaginary friends and play with GI Joes," she said.
But with the risks comes a potential benefit. Since most adults who abuse children were themselves abused as children, Morales believes that stopping abuse in the present will curtail abuse in years to come.
"Any male child you protect prevents a male perpetrator later," he said. "We are treating perpetrators of the future."
The Cerritos program is an adaptation of an earlier model, Child Alert, which the La Verne-San Dimas Junior Women's Club began in 1983.