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Like many of you, I have watched the #metoo hashtag go viral on social media this week. I haven’t posted publicly about my feelings towards what I’ve read, but it has occupied my mind more often than not.
As one of the – alarmingly few, it would appear – women who hasn’t experienced sexual harassment or abuse in her lifetime, reading about such events in the lives of my friends – even when they’ve simply written “#metoo”, without wishing to go into the sordid details behind that simple phrase – has moved and discomforted me. I feel naive and stupid. Why was I not aware that this was so widespread?
Of course I’m not naive and stupid – I’m simply part of a generation of women who have covered up, made excuses, assumed that they must be partly responsible for the behaviour of the men around them.
Friends sharing their experiences now on social media would not have done so to me when it happened because they would have assumed it wasn’t worth sharing, wasn’t as bad as it seemed, that it was somehow (at least in part) their fault. They didn’t want to make a fuss.
And this scares me.
It doesn’t so much scare me for me – but it scares me for my daughter. Can I protect her from being a victim?
The short, and sad, answer is no.
Much as we would like to, none of us parents can protect our children from the effects of sin in our world. Our children will have many ills performed and spoken against them during their lives – some to do with gender, some not. They will suffer at the hands of those they study with, work with, live with, marry. They will be hurt by those they care about. And there is absolutely nothing we can do about that.
I cannot protect my daughter from being a victim, because the sin of abuse lies with the perpetrator, not the sufferer.
But are there ways I can educate her, raise her, so that – should she experience such behaviour in the future – she will know exactly what to do? And are there ways I can raise my sons to respect women, to fight for equality and kindness, to recognise and stand up to abuse?
As I was pondering these things, I read a tweet about raising our sons to be allies, and it resonated with me. Yes, absolutely this is right.
But you know what? Let’s raise our daughters to be allies too. Here are some of my thoughts on how to do this.
Respect starts with the basics
I’m regularly amazed by how blase us parents can be with regards to teaching our kids respect. It’s as if we think there’s some magic age at which it starts.
WRONG. Like everything we teach our kids, it has to start from birth. When a kid pushes another kid at a toddler group, and the parent says nothing, I’m worried for that kid. When a parent makes excuses for his/her child’s attitude in class, I’m worried for that kid. When a parent doesn’t model manners to his/her kid, I’m worried for that kid.
Now maybe you think there’s little to connect childhood bolshiness with adult harassment. Allow me to disagree.
When we teach our kids to say please, thank you and sorry (even if it was an accident), when we encourage respect towards other children and adults, when we encourage them to think positively and to comment positively on their situation, we are pushing back the gender-focused language we might otherwise, albeit unwittingly, encourage them into (boys are tough, girls are beautiful – that kind of rubbish).
We are saying to both our boys and our girls, “Those around you are equal in value to you. You need to respect them. You need to expect respect from others. You can be grateful for the good friends in your life. You can revel in the beauty of your surroundings, rather than comment or act negatively. Life is precious.”
On the other hand, us humans are naturally sinful – we are naturally prone to bad thoughts, bad actions, bad motives.
If we don’t take a handle on our children’s attitudes when they’re young, encouraging them to self-regulate their emotions and think of others, we are allowing them to be overwhelmed by any negative influence around them – a friend who treats women as objects; a boss who speaks disparagingly of a gay employee; a wife who gossips about other women.
Basic respect is not everything – but it’s an excellent start.
Teach the importance of friendship
This is a tricky one, as we’re not usually around when our children are making and forging friendships. But we can sow the seeds by teaching the importance of friendship, and encouraging it to blossom, before our kids start school, when we’re around a lot more for them and can help teach them how to make friends.
And – for those of us who do this kind of thing – we can pray that our children will make good friends (both ‘good’ in terms of influence, and ‘good’ as in ‘close’). (Some thoughts on praying as a busy parent here.)
The important bit about this is that, should our children (daughters or sons) ever experience untoward behaviour from another, their instinct should be to talk to someone – and having a bunch of understanding friends around will be critical.
We won’t always be their first port of call. They need their friends – and their friends need them. Let’s teach our children to talk and listen to their friends – and take their concerns seriously too.
Over-drinking leaves us vulnerable
This is a sensitive one, so please hear me out.
Some – not all – cases of harassment/abuse stem from drinking. Alcohol lowers our inhibitions and weakens our defences. If a girl is harassed/abused when she is under the influence of alcohol, it is still abuse – no doubt. And it is not any more her fault than if it had happened when she were sober – no doubt.
But it is harder to spot, harder to remember, harder to make a statement, harder to convict the offender – and, therefore, I want to teach my children the dangers of over-drinking. There is a reason why Paul commands us not to get drunk on wine but to be filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18) – and that is because the Holy Spirit heightens our sensitivity, whereas alcohol dulls it.
I’m not saying that if you’re tee-total you’re never going to be a victim of sexual harassment. I’m saying that if you’re not heavily under the influence of alcohol, you’re going to be able to think more clearly.
In some cases, yes, this might mean the ability to pre-empt – and move away from – a situation where you’re feeling increasingly uncomfortable. In other cases, it might mean that having a clear head means that you’re in no doubt about what happened that night, whose fault it was, and you’re able to go straight to the police to make a statement.
And, in case it wasn’t clear, this will be what I teach my daughter and my sons. They all need to be responsible. Alcohol makes us act inappropriately on impulses which might be dodgy in the first place. Alcohol makes us less capable of supporting our friends on a night out.
Of course there will be the contingent who respond to this with, “You can’t tell people not to get drunk!” to which my response is I’d rather my kids were sober and clear-headed than drunk and victimised. And, if it really bothers you, get drunk in your own home. But when out with strangers? I hope I can teach my children how to know their limits when it comes to alcohol.
Communication lines need to stay open – especially when it comes to sex
Whatever we teach our children about sex, we need to make it very clear that we are open, and non-judgemental, and will not be shocked by anything our children tell us.
I have little experience in this area, having not hit puberty with any of our kids yet. But I would like to think that, despite what my husband and I teach our children about sex (that it is designed for lifelong marital commitment), we will be able to communicate to them that we respect their decisions when it comes to sex and relationships, even if they differ to our own views.
We will be teaching about consent, about what is OK and what is not OK. We will teach them that if something happens that is not OK, or makes them feel uncomfortable in any way, they need to tell someone immediately. Not jump to an allegation, of course, but tell someone who will be able to advise on whether further action is needed.
Going hand in hand with this is teaching both our sons and our daughter what constitutes showing interest in someone they like.
I honestly believe that some teenage girls are harassed by boys who simply don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t know how to communicate verbally that they like a girl, and wrongly think that grabbing a boob will instantly make the girl feel valued and loved. Of course this is harassment – but some boys don’t know any better because they haven’t been taught. Which brings me to my next point…
Model what it is to give and receive love
Are you physically affectionate with your kids? Can you show your love with words? Do you give them quality time? Can you demonstrate how much you love them by what you do for them? Or with small gifts?
The chances are that we don’t all match up in all those areas. I certainly don’t! But making sure our children not only feel loved, but are able to show love in appropriate ways is just so important.
As they grow into adults, they need to feel comfortable with the concept of love – both platonic and romantic – and when/how it is appropriate to show love. If we never show our children physical affection, for example, they may crave it from inappropriate people in unhealthy ways. (This was my experience, and also the experience of Joanne Gilchrist, who wrote about this in her brilliant Looking for Love.)
It also feels important to me that my kids are able to love a variety of different important people in their lives, to understand how the love for a parent, for example, differs from the love for a grandparent. Or how love for a sibling differs from love for a friend.
Do we allow and encourage our children to build strong, loving relationships with each other? I know this is hard work – siblings love to bicker! – but are we reminding our kids that actually, deep down, they are called to love and serve each other?
In addition – are we modelling healthy, loving partnerships to our children? Those of us who are partnered with the parent of our children – are we demonstrating the equality, respect and support that we hope they will look for in their choice of partner?
Those of us who are parenting on our own, are we teaching our children that our value doesn’t come from being in a romantic relationship? Those of us starting to date again, are we teaching our children how to pick a partner who respects and values us?
My prayer is that my sons grow up to respect women for their inner beauty, showing love to those around them in healthy and appropriate ways. And that my daughter grows up with a secure sense of her own identity, and a rock-solid awareness of how she should and shouldn’t be treated.
But my prayer is more than that, actually.
It is that my sons would also have a secure sense of their own identity – which means that they never need to walk over others in order to pursue their dreams, nor that they allow others to walk over them. My prayer is also that my daughter grows up to respect men, able to love them for who they are, and not just pursue them for romantic gain.
To all those who’ve bravely shared the #metoo hashtag, thank you. I pray that your bravery will ensure that things are different for the next generation.