Telling the secret

Sivan Rahav Meir speaks about how to protect children from sexual predators.

Sivan Rahav Meir ,

Sivan Rahav meir
Sivan Rahav meir
צילום: עצמי

1.

On Monday evening while I was driving, I was listening to the radio and heard them talking about Breaking the Silence, the Regularization Law and more updates about Milchin’s champagne and cigars. But inside, in the hall of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem, Noa Ariel was declaring a revolution. “This is the most important headline of our time,” she told her audience of teachers and supervisors who came to check out her show for their schools. “This is a process – like the exodus from Egypt.

It’s a transformation from servitude to freedom, from slavery to redemption. We are fighting the plague of sexual abuse. We are saving our children. We are cleansing the world from tremendous filth. It’s historic. We are changing gears in the real and positive relationship between parents and children.”

Ariel has been working in theater for decades and lives in Yitzhar; her rabbi is Rabbi Ginsburg.

“My rabbi told me to turn the world upside down, to remedy it,” she tells the audience. “I have plenty of nice shows for Tu B’Shevat and Hanukkah, but this show – I’m begging you to book it because it can save lives. Let’s make the world a healthy place again.”

And then she begins. Using puppets, her show, "A little bird told me a secret” tells a story of sexual abuse. The theater enables her to touch upon difficult dilemmas with sensitivity. The plot describes a little, curious bird who gets invited to the house of the big and most respected bird in the forest, and there the big bird starts playing nice yet confusing games with the little bird, and in the end she abuses the little bird. Ariel chose this kind of story because most cases of child abuse occur in close and familiar territory and are perpetrated by someone who the parents know and sometimes even admire. The famous line of parents “Don’t go with strangers” is really not enough and doesn’t work.

As time passes, the little bird begins to feel that something is not right, but doesn’t understand how serious the problem is, and most importantly, she is embarrassed to talk about it. The big bird also swears her to secrecy. In the end, the little bird decides to tell her mother, who gives her emotional support.

The show ends with a song: “I’m very happy that I told my secret, I told someone what happened and now I got help. We don’t hide things from parents, nothing at all. We tell them everything, that’s the rule.”

The lights go back on and Ariel is flooded with questions from her viewers which she answers. It looks like everyone who was there wants to book her for their institution. Her calendar, by the way, is fully booked. She appears three and sometimes even four times a day in public schools, religious public schools and haredi schools. The show changes the way the subject is talked about in school. There are children who, as a result of the show, went up to their teacher, school counselor or parent and said, “I’m a little bird and I have a secret.”

“There’s a phenomenal message here,” Ariel attempts to encourage her pensive and dispirited audience. “The attacker doesn’t usually just attack and go on his way. He creates a process, he builds trust. If we teach our children to talk to us at the very beginning of the process, the very first time they feel confused – we’ll be able to put a stop to it. We also need to pay attention to worrisome signs. In the show we see the little bird displaying illogical behavior – and this should arouse parents’ suspicion – the little bird goes to sleep without talking to anyone and she’s disrespectful. I learned about an important concept from professionals in the field – “approachable parents.” We need to be approachable parents, the kind that can be approached and asked questions.”

2.

The following day I met Ran Yehoshua and Tali Gildin, two Jerusalem educators. Together with therapist Shneor Walker, they are also trying to shake up the education system and make it deal with this loaded topic through theater. Their program is called “Dare to share.” Why? Because they say that the attacker acts like a predator on the lookout for the vulnerable child, the quiet child who won’t talk, the kind that looks like he won’t breathe a word to an adult. He’s an easier target for abuse. In their workshops and shows they try to give these children the “dare to share” in order to stop situations of abuse but also to enable parents to speak up so they know how to react and cope. I asked them to share with worried parents some practical tools from the booklet they will soon distribute about child sexual abuse prevention programs. Here are the most important principles they want to teach us:

* In order for children to talk about abuse, they need to feel that they’ll be believed and not judged. They need to feel sure that we’ll be on their side and that they are unconditionally loved. The adults are the ones responsible for creating this feeling. With this purpose in mind, it’s necessary to initiate appropriate and open discussion within the daily routine.

For example, “I read an article this morning about unpleasant games being played by children in different schools – does this happen in your class too? And if it did happen, what would you do?” If when we’re together, we hear someone using vulgar language or cursing, it’s an opportunity to talk about the fact that our body belongs to us and that it’s important to maintain clean, respectful language.

* A child who wants to approach an adult about these topics will first put out feelers to check if the adult can contain him. If he doesn’t get good vibes, he’ll remain silent. It’s important to give the child the feeling that he can approach us about any topic. If in the past we showed distance and closedness, it’s important to change that.

* The most basic rules of child sexual abuse prevention if something happens are: Say no. Go away. Tell someone. It must be stressed that it’s sometimes very difficult to say no and walk away, but it’s always possible to tell someone, and it’s never too late to tell, even if it was a well-kept secret for a long time.

* There’s no point in scaring kids and telling them, “There are pedophiles everywhere, everyone is perverted.” You need to communicate trust and confidence: Our body belongs only to us and we tell our parents about things that bother us. The basic assumption is that our body is wonderful and our private parts are good and important, not bad. Appropriate touching is important and connects people and that’s precisely why it’s important to set boundaries and to protect ourselves.

* Australian research determined that if a child has a “potential guardian,” meaning an adult who has spoken with him or her about sexual abuse prevention and is someone he can approach in any situation, the chance of him being abused is dramatically reduced. Such a child conveys the message that it’s not worth starting up with him because he has someone to tell.

* Sexual abuse prevention is not a theory – it’s something that needs to be practiced. Crossing the street at a crosswalk is also something we practice with our kids. That’s why we need to role-play with our kids. Not under pressure, not in a panic. Calmly. What happens if someone comes up to me on the bus? If someone starts chatting with me online? If a teacher or counselor gets too close to me?

* If G-d forbid, the child tells you about abuse, the desired reaction is: “It’s good that you told me, good for you, I believe you and we’re going to deal with it. We’re going to get through this together.” This is not the time to question or judge, and the adult also needs to seek the advice of professionals in the field in order to decide how to proceed. Research has shown that if a correct response is given and if we are able to “be there” for the victim, the recovery process already begins then.

* The column is from "Yedioth Aharonot" and was translated by Shoshana Silver. Sivan Rahav Meir is a broadcaster on Israel's Channel 2 news.




top