`Messages about getting away, telling and saying no are too important to put into a negative context.’ Michele Elliott writes about creating
The headteacher of Montem Junior School was on the phone. ‘I thought you might like to know what happened when I read the first chapter of The Willow Street Kids in assembly this morning.’
Linda Frost is direct and honest in her appraisals, which is why I sent her the book in draft form to ‘try out’ with her pupils. It is also why I waited apprehensively for her to go on.
‘Well, we had the usual wiggling, coughing and velcro fasteners to compete with the story. You know what it’s like with 300 children in a hall.’ She was going to keep me in suspense.
‘Then it became incredibly quiet and they all sat and really listened; no more velcro. At the end of the chapter, they burst into applause. I guess you’ve got it right.’
It was like passing an exam, or waiting for someone to tell me that the baby I had produced after nine months was lovely. Except this baby, The Willow Street Kids, had been in the making for years and had taken 12 months to produce.
Having worked with children for nearly 20 years, as a teacher and a psychologist and finally as a demented ‘elderly’ mother of two, I hoped that it might be possible to write a book for children which would reinforce all those messages we give them about keeping safe, but which would not have to be shoved down their throats.
How would it be possible, though, to include concerns such as what to do if someone flashed at you or made one of those nasty telephone calls or asked you to keep kisses a secret. What about the children’s overwhelming concerns about bullies and strangers. For years we have warned children, but seldom given them strategies for doing anything should they be confronted with a real danger.
For years, too, children had been telling me about the things which had happened to them and there was a remarkable similarity in their stories. Perhaps the best way was to take the children’s stories and weave them around a group of children who, with the help of adults, figure out the best ways to handle these situations.
For example, in the story Katie’s purse is snatched in the park by an older bully who makes off.
‘Katie looked round frantically for someone to help, but there was no one in sight. The bully and her money were gone and she couldn’t believe what had happened. She was so angry that the tears were streaming down her face as she rode her bike back to the picnic.
“Katie, what’s the matter?”
“Some girl just took all my money and …” Katie stopped, as the children crowded round asking questions all at once.
“Wait a minute,” said Steven. “Let’s see if we can find her.”
They all rushed to get their bikes and followed Katie to the phone box.
There was no one there.
They rode around for half an hour and had no luck. Tim had just said that it was getting late, and maybe they should ring the police or someone, when Katie pointed excitedly in the direction of the playground.
“Look!” she said in a loud whisper. “It’s her.”‘
The children subsequently deal with the situation, but there is disagreement over what they should have done. This disagreement is raised later in the book and the teacher helps them to think it through.
Another example is the story of how the boys deal with being flashed at. Charlie shouts out ‘. . . you might catch cold’, but Steven shushes him with the admonishment that ‘. . . you shouldn’t talk to him.’
When Deirdre gets an upsetting telephone call, her sister Sally helps by reporting it and by getting a whistle to blow down the telephone. First, though, she makes sure that it is the caller before blasting his ear.
Throughout the book there are numerous problems the children learn to cope with, usually with the help of adults. The children are supportive of one another and they are lucky to have such understanding adults around. Perhaps this is too cosy, but the messages about getting away, telling and saying no, if possible. are too important to be put into a negative context, so this ‘cosiness’ was done with purpose.
This, too, is why the question of potential sexual abuse is so carefully handled. Although the statistics indicate that one in ten children may be subjected to a sexually abusive experience before reaching the age of 16, the same statistics indicate that most children will never have to worry about it. In that sense it is rather like the issue of road safety – most children will not be run down by cars, yet they need to know how to avoid the possibility.
Also, since over 75%, of the reported cases of sexual abuse involve someone known to the child, teaching children only about strangers is like teaching them to cross the road while only looking out for the red cars. There does need to be caution and common sense, however. It is harmful to frighten children about normal, everyday affection. I decry the trend at the moment which is from ‘stranger danger’ to ‘daddy danger’.
Therefore, Julie’s story in the book is told in a sensitive, non-frightening way. Julie’s uncle has asked her to keep touching a secret and she doesn’t know what to do. She tells Gill that ‘a friend of hers has a problem’ which is the way many children seek help. ‘It didn’t happen to me, but I’ve got this friend …’
Julie doesn’t tell her secret for over a year. When she does, her sister doesn’t believe her, but her parents do. I know this isn’t always the case, but the vast majority of parents do love and care for their children.
The Willow Street Kids is written for the broad range of primary age children and aims to give them strategies for dealing with a variety of situations. You will not, however, find the term ‘sexual abuse’ mentioned because of a deeply held belief that children should not be introduced to sex linked with abuse.
The Willow Street Kids in some schools is being used with Kidscape materials. Otherwise, teachers and parents are using it to read to or with children. Many older children are reading it themselves, as is evidenced by some of the letters I have received. One girl, aged 10, wrote to ask how I knew what it felt like to try to tell, because she felt just like Julie. My response was that lots of children had told similar (not the same) stories. She later wrote to say she had finally told and was believed.
A nine-year-old boy in a special school rang to say that he was bullied at school and could I send the school a copy of the book so that someone would stop the bullying. Another boy said he talked to his dad about bullies, but all his dad said to do was ‘kick her in the balls’. So much for some strategies and certainly for sex education!
There was a lovely letter from an 11-year-old, who declared that all children should read The Willow Street Kids and that they were all talking about it. They had one question for me which I couldn’t answer. Mrs Simpson tells the class at the end of the year that she is having a baby. The girls wanted to know if she had a girl or a boy.
I guess there will have to be a sequel.
Michele Elliott is a primary teacher, an educational psychologist, and mother of two boys aged five and eight. She is. co-director of Kidscape, the chairman of a Home Office Working Group on Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Publicity, and on the Advisory Council of Childline.