On teaching kids about harassment

[Trigger warning for discussion and examples of sexual harassment and assault.]

I tweeted a lot yesterday about harassment. Links to other people’s posts, and discussion of my views and the views of others. This led to a number of conversations with J about what we are going to teach our kids about harassment, sexual or otherwise, and when we are going to start.

“It’s complicated,” and, “now.”

It’s complicated because one of the basic principles of parenting is teaching your kids that they are not the center of the universe and that many things are just not that big a deal. Let it go; it’s not about you.

The store is out of your favorite ice cream? Let it go; it’s not about you. A toddler at the playgroup runs into you? Let it go; it’s not about you. You don’t get the math problem right the first time? Let it go; it’s not about you.

The other thing we teach kids is to do things they don’t like but are in their long-term best interest. Suck it up, bucko. Don’t like the dentist? Suck it up, bucko. Don’t like vitamins? Suck it up, bucko. Don’t like handwriting? Suck it up, bucko.

When it comes to sexual harassment, all of those things are reversed. You do not have to tolerate sexual harassment. It is not a trivial thing to be tolerated. You do not make allowances for others and let it go.

And the converse is true — your overbearing conversation will not be tolerated. Your failure to back off will be termed assault. Your lack of observation of the boundaries of others will be reported and punished.

We teach and teach and teach kids to be a part of the group, to get along, to have manners and respect, to listen, to not argue, to be good. And then we tell them there is this massive exception. … How is that exception defined? Traditionally we tell young kids that it is defined by people touching one’s genitals, or asking to be touched in similarly inappropriate ways. This gets broadened somewhat as kids get older but …

… but how many adults do you know or know of who admit only violent assault by a stranger as the only form of rape? I think a lot of people never get past this basic, third-grade, definition.

I want my community to do better than that. To be better than that.

I want my kids to be better than that.

From the time I was about thirteen until I was, oh, twenty-six or so, I had one response to sexually-charged situations that I did not understand. I made an excuse and left. In retrospect, this was a FINE tactic for me. Worked out splendidly, I likely avoided a ton of things I didn’t want.

At the time, though, I felt horrible. I was stupid, and naive, and so fucking stupid to leave just when everyone else was having a good time. What was I, frigid? Was I crazy? Everyone else knew what was going on, and liked it! What was wrong with me that I didn’t understand, that I was uneasy, that I was afraid?

Well, nothing. Leaving an uncomfortable situation is a fantastic line of defense. And, eventually, we teach teenagers to leave if they are uncomfortable — if their friends are drinking too much, or if they feel pressured, or if things are getting out of hand. But it’s hard — really, really hard — to explain that this decision will not always be easy. That it will not be rewarding. That your friends will catcall you as you leave, and the next day tell you of the fun you missed. That your romantic partner will be fine with you leaving, as long as you reassure him or her first that you’re not hurt, mad, or upset.

And what exactly is too much? Or out of hand? When is fun not fun? How do you learn to trust yourself, when every single damn person in your peer group is all, every one of them, faking that they know what they are doing?

These are the questions that J and I discussed on and off all day. We don’t have perfect answers. We won’t actually know if our answers, our response, is any good for, oh, say, fifteen years or so. Maybe twenty.

It’s a daunting prospect, this whole parenting thing.


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