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Why chat time with our kids is important

The topic of inappropriate touching is one we need to broach with our children early on

My seven-year-old daughter and I were chatting happily over lunch one day when she suddenly blurted out: "Like how the school bus uncle massaged my leg!"

 My mind went blank for a while as I absorbed the statement, before I carefully probed her for more details on what she had just said.

 Keeping the tone of my voice neutral (even though I was feeling anything but), it felt a bit surreal as I asked her where, when and how it happened, who it was, how many times it happened and how she felt.

 I reassured her that she did the right thing by telling me about it, that she was in no way at fault, and I would not be angry, so she could be completely honest with me.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

 She answered all my questions in a matter-of-fact manner, and the only question she faltered at was when I asked when it happened - she couldn't remember.

 She takes the school bus home from school daily and is usually the first up the bus.

 From what I could gather, she was alone in the bus sitting on the seat nearest the door when the driver from another bus touched her leg.  She said he stood outside the bus and reached for her leg but stopped when another pupil boarded her bus.

 She repeated the same story when my husband questioned her later that day.  We were upset but decided to write to her form teachers to inform them about what had happened and let the school do its investigations.

Meanwhile, I told her to wait for other children to arrive before boarding the bus, and to inform a teacher immediately if there was ever a repeat of such an incident. 

The school took immediate action to look into the incident.

 The school counsellor met my daughter the following school day, and said she was cheerful and articulate during the chat, but could not remember when the incident happened. She assessed that my daughter was not emotionally affected by the incident, which could explain why she did not immediately tell me about it.

In a way, the incident is a lesson to better teach my children how to protect themselves - yes, both of them, because boys can be victims too.  I'm glad that the school took swift action to question the bus driver, arrange for the counsellor to talk to my daughter and change procedures so that no pupil would be alone in a bus at any point. Above all, I'm most thankful that my daughter mentioned it to me, even if she didn't do it immediately.

 The principal questioned the bus driver, who admitted that he did touch my daughter's shin. He said he had no ill intention, apologised for his action and promised there would not be a repeat of such an incident.

 The principal also met all the bus drivers and assistants to remind them that there should be no physical contact between them and the children.

 Since that day, the pupils have gathered at a waiting area before boarding the buses together.

 It has been a couple of weeks and I've had time to calm down and think through the episode.

 While a part of me still wishes I was there to protect her, my husband, the more rational one, said an incident like that could happen anywhere, even on a public bus. We decided it is important to teach her how to protect herself.

 The sexuality education syllabus in Primary 5 and 6 covers inappropriate touching - but that is being taught much too late, as this incident has shown.

 I remember talking to my daughter (and her elder brother) about inappropriate touching a year or two ago, but the point was just mentioned in passing.  I'm not sure how much of our conversation they remember but we have reminded them again after this incident and will continue to do so when appropriate.

 An online parent guide by the Education Ministry to help parents communicate with their children on sexuality issues - Love Them. Talk About Sex - has a section on good and bad kinds of touching.

 The advice includes:

 Tell your child it is usually okay to be hugged and kissed by people whom he/she knows and loves. (This is a good type of touch.)

But if it is a situation where your child feels uncomfortable, is told not to tell anyone else about it or forced to touch another person, (that is, a bad touch), teach him or her to:

  • Say "No!" Tell the person that you don't like it and you don't want to be touched.
  • Get away fast and never stay alone with that person again.
  • Call or scream for help.
  • Inform someone you trust, for example, mum or a teacher.

In a way, the incident is a lesson to better teach my children how to protect themselves - yes, both of them, because boys can be victims too.  I'm glad that the school took swift action to question the bus driver, arrange for the counsellor to talk to my daughter and change procedures so that no pupil would be alone in a bus at any point.

 Above all, I'm most thankful that my daughter mentioned it to me, even if she didn't do it immediately. I dare not think about the what-ifs if she did not and similar incidents continued to happen.

 This is a good reminder of the need to continue to talk to my children after school, ask about their day, their friends and what goes on in their lives.

 Such conversations may not sound like a big deal but it could mean a world of a difference to a child - so when something like this happens, they will be comfortable enough to talk to us about it.

Jane Ng, a former education journalist, is now a freelance writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2016, with the headline 'Why chat time with our kids is important'. Print Edition | Subscribe