(Names changed for privacy reasons.)
I remember it as if it were yesterday.
I was standing atop the tall slide at my elementary school’s playground, basking in the late afternoon sun, surveying my territory like a queen. Behind me, my friend Kim was waiting for me to slide down so she could have her turn. At the bottom of the slide, my friends Todd and Ann were playing some sort of tag game as they ran round-and-round a massive cottonwood tree.
Oh, but how quickly the game changed.
Todd caught Ann, and pinned her against the tree. She was screaming, wriggling to get free, but couldn’t, because Todd was bigger and stronger. He started hiking up her skirt, intent to see what was underneath, muttering something about her panties.
In a flash, I slid down the galvanized steel, yanked Todd away, and gave him a swift kick in the crotch before he had a chance to react.
Hot tears and vile words followed. I vaguely recall him fighting the urge to throw up. Defeated, Todd hobbled away, vowing revenge. I grabbed Ann, asking if she was okay as I wiped away the fear that wet her cheeks. She nodded yes. Kim and I escorted her home, then walked together to our respective houses in silence, stunned by what had happened.
Ann was six and Todd was seven. SIX and SEVEN.
Gender violence really does start that young. Todd didn’t even realize what he had done was wrong. The curse words that flew from his mouth after I kicked him accompanied threats of violence and even legal action. “My Dad will beat your ass,” he screamed. I kept a brave face, but internally I shook like a leaf. Even if Todd’s dad didn’t come after me, what would my own father do to me for hitting another kid?
It’s not like we grew up in a urban setting, either, where ingrained actions like this might be (sadly) expected. Nope, this was in a tiny town with a population of less than 100 people. I knew Todd well enough to know he didn’t even have cable, so how would he have learned to a) try to go up Ann’s skirt, and b) act so privileged as to threaten legal action and violence when he was denied?
The short answer? At home. The long answer? Thousands of years of systematic oppression of women, leading to a cultural norm where violence against females is so ingrained, little kids engage in it without a thought.
Well, it’s even more complicated than that, but I’m not a psychologist or sociologist, nor even a particularly good example of how to be a strong, take-no-shit woman on some days. But I have been affected by gender violence at several points in my life, so in that respect, I have something to say.
Every woman you have known or ever will know is affected by gender violence. Let me say that again. Every. Single. One.
Whether a woman is a direct victim of rape, or simply tells her friends where she is going in case she doesn’t return by a certain time, she is affected. She has been conditioned to act in a certain way specifically to avoid becoming a victim of gender violence. This ingrained behavior is why the #YesAllWomen tag exists.
Now, I could go on ad infinitum, sharing the stories that I’m personally aware of, told to me by the women I know and adore. There comes a time, however, when a call to action needs to be issued. But…my call to action isn’t what you might expect. I’m not going to talk about what grown men and women can do to help stop gender violence. There are many such discussions, with my personal favorite being Jackson Katz’s powerful TED talk that can be found here. I am, however, going to talk about what each and every one of you can do to help our children stop the cycle.
It’s surprisingly simple. Show and tell.
One of the most important things we can teach a child is that they have the power to establish boundaries and say “no” to others. Tell your kids that everybody gets to set their own boundaries for their own reasons. Tell them that if, in the course of interacting with other children, another child tells them “no”, then that no is to be respected.
Where this gets tricky, however, is in showing our children that a “no” is to be respected. Respecting the “no” often seems to pit the need to parent effectively against the need to raise a confident, respectful child. In my opinion, far too many children are ignored when they say no, often because they lack the verbal skills to explain why they are refusing to do something. An example of this would be a child refusing to get on a carnival ride. The refusal may stem from a fear of heights, of the noises the ride makes, or they may simply not want to ride the freakin’ ride. Coaching your child past his or her fears is an important part of parenting. Explaining how the ride works and offering to accompany your child may ease them past their fears in a healthy way. However, parents should still be prepared to accept their child’s refusal. All too often, parents ignore their child’s pleas, telling them to be a “big boy/girl”, dragging them onto the ride with the intent to show the child that their fears are baseless. Hell, I’ve even seen parents put their child on a ride alone, to let them “tough it out”. What does pushing a child beyond their comfort zone really accomplish? What does your son or daughter take away from that interaction? Children learn, from their earliest years, that “no” doesn’t matter. Children also learn that adults can arbitrarily decide whether or not to respect another’s wishes.
Guess what? Children that don’t respect boundaries grow up to be adults who don’t respect boundaries.
I’m not telling parents to abandon all efforts to discipline or otherwise teach their children important life lessons. Quite the opposite, actually. Children pick up social cues from our actions far more than we are ever comfortable admitting, more so than our words. When we deny our children the right to say “no” and have that “no” honored, they aren’t going to listen when we tell them to respect others. If we consistently show them that their wishes don’t matter, why would they honor anyone else’s?
In short, we all need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Show and tell.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to give our children the confidence to establish and respect boundaries. We must also give our kids the courage to act when they see someone disrespecting another’s boundary.
We teach our children that if they see a bully in action, to alert an adult. So…why don’t we teach our children to do this when they see gender violence? It is, after all, bullying. Gender violence in children is cleverly disguised and often described as “cute”. For example, boys and girls alike chase each other around the schoolyard, trying to steal kisses. Often, this chase game ends in one child being held down while the other took the kiss they “won”, despite the captive child’s protests. I did it, and I bet most if not all of you did as well. When you break down even the most innocent-looking of this behavior, however, boundaries are being violated. A child is being taught that their “no” doesn’t matter. Yet, nobody ever does anything about this behavior because “kids will be kids”.
Tell that to the sobbing little girl who had her skirt hiked up against her will.
“Kids will be kids” turns into “boys will be boys” and “girls will be girls” in a flash, and because we were all taught as children through words and actions that this behavior was “normal” and “acceptable”, we turn a blind eye to it as adults. Joe Blow ignores it when his buddy grabs a random woman’s buttocks at the club, because as a boy, that was normal, so why wouldn’t this be too? Besides, Joe tells himself, he didn’t do the grabbing, so he did nothing wrong.
That “not me” attitude, currently masquerading as #NotAllMen on social media, is perhaps the biggest hurdle we face in our efforts as a society to put an end to gender violence. We are all conditioned to never say anything, to turn a blind eye, because “boys will be boys” or “girls will be girls” or “I’m not involved, so I’m not part of the problem”.
If we ever hope to teach our children that gender violence and boundary-bashing IS bullying, we have to teach our children that being a bystander is just as bad as being the bully. We must teach our kids that turning a blind eye and staying quiet is just the same as telling the bully that their behavior is okay. We adults must stop excusing such behavior under the guise of “kids will be kids”, “boys will be boys”, or “girls will be girls” when it is reported to us. If we dismiss a child’s attempt to stop what they perceive (and hopefully have been taught) as inappropriate behavior, why would they continue speaking up? Again, it comes back to the fact that children learn far more from our behavior than our words.
Twenty-eight years ago, I walked into our kitchen, head low and fear twisting my stomach in knots. Yet, my soul was light. My friend had been scared and I helped her. I acted purely out of instinct. I felt that I had done the right thing, but my parents taught me that physical violence was wrong. I feared being grounded or worse.
I grabbed the pile of silverware and helped my mother finish setting the table, still silent.
“What’s wrong?” My mom asked as she set a plate down. My father’s eyebrows shot up.
“I…uh…” I set down the last fork and started chewing on my fingernail. Finally, I decided to spit it out. “Todd was chasing Ann and he caught her and tried to look up her skirt so I kicked him in the nuts and he ran away.” I said it fast, hoping my parents would have missed the part where I kicked a boy in the balls.
“Good for you,” my father said as my mother hugged me.
“I’m…not in trouble for kicking him?”
My father smiled. “Nope, you did the right thing. And if a boy ever tries that on you, I hope you do the exact same thing.”
Unfortunately, several years later, my father’s if became when, and that groin kick gave me enough time to grab my attacker’s knife and escape. If I’d been punished for helping my friend all those years earlier, would I have had the courage to fight back? I still shudder when I consider the alternative.
I’m part of the 60% who never reported their rape. I blamed myself for too long. The attacker was a guy I had once dated. I had gone to see him, hoping to salvage the friendship we’d once had. Therefore, in my mind, I put myself in that situation and it was totally my fault, despite the fact I told this guy repeatedly while we had dated that I was saving my virginity for marriage. Despite the fact I told him on that fateful night that I only wanted to hang out. Despite the fact that there were several other people there who should have stepped in when they heard my screams.
I stayed silent out of shame, but now I will shout my story from the rooftops. I refuse to let society place the blame on me for one second longer. I know now that it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t teach him to ignore boundaries, nor to treat women like objects. I didn’t teach him to use threats of physical violence when someone denied him. That was all on him and his parents.
My parents, however, taught me that standing up for my no was my right. They taught me that nobody could violate my boundaries. And they taught me that fighting back–whether a victim or bystander, with words or fists–was the right thing to do.
I challenge you to teach your children the same thing.