Parenting is…a lot. The first time you look at your newborn, you realize the magnitude of it. It is wonderful and amazing, and your heart feels like it’s literally going to explode. And shortly thereafter, the terror sets in—terror about everything from worrying whether they’re getting enough milk to whether or not something you do will screw them up for life. But the biggie is this: Will I be able to protect this child?
Because suddenly you understand just how scary the world is—especially for our girls. Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Terry Richards, Bill O’Reilly and the other assorted offenders being called out right now are just the tip of the sexual harassment and assault iceberg.
Women are still harassed regularly. Women are still assaulted regularly. Women still have to fight to be taken seriously in the workplace and are grateful when they’re not harassed. (Think for a minute how effed up that is.) Women are still shamed and blamed and coerced into apologizing for speaking their minds.
Here are some sobering stats from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center:
• One in five women will be raped at some point in their lives.
• In 8 out of 10 cases of rape, the victim knows the assailant.
• Nearly one in 10 women is raped by an intimate partner.
• Approximately 63 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police.
And that’s straight-up sexual assault, not sexual harassment, which I would venture to say that almost every woman on the planet has experienced at some point in their lives. Yes, sexual harassment and sexual assault are two different things, but they are both on the same problematic continuum.
Also, before anyone chimes in with, “But boys can be victims, too,” let me stop you right there. Yes, of course, that is true. I have a son, and it is something that keeps me up at night. But we are talking about girls right now. Misogyny is still socially condoned, and 91 percent of the victims of rape and sexual assault are female. Plus, what I’m about to discuss protects boys as well—from being assaulted themselves and from becoming the perpetrators of these crimes.
The only way to change this toxic culture and the toxic masculinity at the root of it is by starting at a grassroots level: with parenting. If enough of us actively work to change things on an individual level when our kids are young, we can stop this problem before it takes hold of yet another generation. Because I don’t want my son or my daughter to be a part of the problem, and I certainly don’t want any of our children to be writing #MeToo in 20 years.
So, what can we do? A lot, actually, and we should be doing it with our toddlers, our preschoolers and our elementary-school kids. Of course, the parenting needs to continue and evolve as our children get older, but these 15 actionable ideas can put us and them on the right track right now.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
Examine your own biases.
Do you hear a horrific story about sexual assault or harassment and find yourself wondering about the victim’s clothing, personality or past? Do you think that girls need to follow a strict dress code so they don’t distract boys in school? If so, you have some work to do on your own mindset. We’ve been culturally conditioned to think this way, but remember this: The sole blame for a gender-based crime rests with the perpetrator, not the victim.
Watch what you say.
Our children are always listening. An offhand comment of “look at what she was wearing—no wonder she got that sort of attention” can translate into a very loud, very clear message for kids. A more accurate and productive comment would be: “There is no excuse for assaulting someone—period.” The focus should not be on teaching girls how not to get raped. It should be on teaching boys (and the men they become) not to rape.
Don’t let misogynistic comments slide—especially when family members say them.
Gender-based violence starts with words and attitudes. Derogatory comments are obviously problematic, but so are offhand, off-color comments. Why? Because they imply that women are “less than” men, and that dehumanizes them and makes it easier to perpetrate violence against them. And when trusted family and friends talk like that, children can internalize that attitude…unless you speak up and make it clear that those “jokes” are not acceptable. We don’t want our boys embracing toxic beliefs—or our girls believing them.
Stop saying that you’re sorry, and stop saying “just.”
Moms, this one’s for you: For an entire day, write down how many times you apologize for basically breathing and taking up space or say “just” as a way to minimize what you’re suggesting. Chances are, you’ll be shocked and horrified by the results. When we diminish ourselves, we are sending a subconscious but very clear message to our children: We don’t believe that we, as women, have a right to say what’s on our minds, and when we do, we’re “overreacting” or “being dramatic.”
Model healthy relationships.
What our children see is what they will think is normal. This obviously goes for our relationships with our significant others, but also with what they see on TV and read in books. Be vigilant about what type of media they’re consuming; when you really start paying attention in this way, you might be surprised at the unhealthy relationships that are modeled even in cartoons. When something like this pops up, I’ll say to my kids, “I need you both to know that’s not what a real and healthy relationship looks like,” and then I’ll explain why in an age-appropriate way.
WHAT WE CAN TEACH OUR KIDS
Don’t confuse physical aggression with harmless “fun.”
Growing up, how many times did you hear that boys did mean things to girls they liked? They pulled ponytails, they teased in a nasty way, they snapped bras—they basically committed low-grade assault and adults condoned it. The idea that these actions are OK is not OK. Validate your girls when they tell you about this, and teach your boys that violence does not equal affection.
Give them the tools to combat rape culture on a daily basis.
Lay the groundwork with even the littlest of kids and they’ll have an inherent understanding of what’s right and wrong. How? By teaching them to respect other people’s bodies, boundaries and wishes. By teaching them empathy. By teaching them about consent. By teaching them that boys and girls are fundamentally the same—and that one should not and will not get away with something because of their gender. (Boys will be boys? Hell to the no.) For more specifics on how to do this and why it’s so important, check out this post that I wrote on the 13 everyday lessons you can teach your kids to fight rape culture and keep them safe.
Teach boys that women are human beings.
Women are just as smart, just as ambitious and just as worthy as their male counterparts. On the flip side, they are not miraculous, ethereal creatures who should be put on a pedestal. That creates unrealistic expectations and sets up both genders for disappointment and potential danger. Important addendum for parents of older kids: Learn what not to do from the Matt Damon playbook on sexual assault—namely, don’t tell your boys that they should respect women because they’re someone’s sister or mother or daughter. Tell them to respect women because they are human beings, just like them.
Teach girls that they are strong.
Not that they need to be strong, but that they are strong. Tell them that their bodies are strong and capable, that their minds are strong and clever, that their voices matter and that they should speak up. And don’t forget to teach them that when someone inevitably says something to the contrary, they shouldn’t believe them and should talk to you about it. Because no matter how strong they are, they need you to remind them and to back them up.
Eliminate the word ladylike from your vocabulary.
I know that I’m going to get grief for this, but bear with me and follow the logic: If a woman isn’t a “lady,” what is she? A slut or someone who isn’t worthy of respect. That said, of course I don’t want either of my kids to act like ogres, so the same rules regarding manners apply to both of them. Gender is irrelevant.
Empower boys to be vocal when others are being bullied.
We always say that it takes a village when it comes to parenting, but it also takes a village to stop a culture of bullying and sexual violence. Now that my son is in kindergarten, we have this hypothetical (and sometimes not-so-hypothetical) conversation: “If someone is being unkind to your classmate, what would you do?” We’re not talking about sexual assault, but if he’s comfortable speaking up and doing what’s right now, he’ll be more comfortable doing it later as well. As he gets older, we’ll talk about it in clearer terms and why “locker room talk” is a problem—and why you’re a part of that problem if you don’t speak out against it.
Make sure that an apology is only the first step when solving a conflict.
We’ve all been there: Our child pushes another kid or does something else semi-horrifying. We’re embarrassed, so we encourage a quick apology. Now, I’m all for apologies, but that can’t be the end of it. Children—especially boys, since their aggressive behavior is often excused—need to understand why they’re sorry; otherwise it will happen again…and again and again. So, it’s not just a vague, hastily said “I’m sorry.” It’s: “I’m sorry for pushing you out of the way to get down the slide first.” I also make sure that my son and I have a larger discussion later about what happened, why it was unkind and what we can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Is that overkill for a kiddie infraction? No, because it makes him own his actions and gives him insight into his behavior—two very important things that can ward against sexual assault.
Teach kids that when it comes to their bodies, what they say goes.
If they say no to tickling, stop. If they like roughhousing with a sibling one minute and hate it the next, make sure it stops. I go one step further and explain what’s happening: “I’m sorry. You were having fun before, but now you’re not, so I will stop right now. You get to decide what happens to your body.” The same goes for relatives and family friends who want hugs when your little one doesn’t want to dole them out. It’s not about them, and it’s not about your potential discomfort—it’s about your children being able to assert and protect themselves.
Don’t pretend that we live in a world without sexual assault.
We don’t want to ruin our kids’ innocence or frighten them, but if we don’t let them know that sexual assault exists and that not everyone is good, we are leaving them vulnerable. It’s never too early to have this conversation and then continue building on it. Never. If they’re away from you for any period of time—at preschool, with a babysitter, at daycare—you need to have the talk.
Talk about what private parts are and explain that no one should see or touch them—except for Mommy, Daddy or a caregiver when they need to clean or help you, or a doctor but only if Mommy or Daddy is in the room. And on the flip side, teach them that they shouldn’t touch others inappropriately either. All that said, explain that if anyone touches them in a way that they shouldn’t or if they ever feel even slightly uncomfortable, they need to get away from that person immediately, in any way they can, and tell you what happened.
Start these lessons early and reinforce them regularly, and they will carry over into adulthood. If our kids, especially our girls, know about potential dangers and trust their instincts, they will hopefully be better equipped to avoid dangerous situations—or at least have a better idea of how to deal with them if they happen. These lessons will also protect our boys and give them a better understanding of consent.
Make sure your kids know they can talk to you—always.
We love our children unconditionally. It’s a given…but not necessarily in their minds. That’s why we also need to make it clear to our girls and our boys that if, God forbid, sexual assault happens, it is not their fault and that you would never be mad at them. Shame and guilt often keep victims silent, but if there’s nothing to be ashamed of because they know it’s not their fault, there’s nothing to stay silent about.
If you’re looking for another tangible way to help combat gender-based violence—or you or someone you know needs help—check out the amazing non-profit Womankind. You can donate directly to them, or support their fundraising efforts by purchasing the gorgeous necklace below, which was designed by my friend Janet Akie Masamitsu of Janet Jewelry. She’s a super talented jewelry designer, as well as someone who advocates tirelessly for women in need. All proceeds from this piece—yes, 100 percent of them—will go to Womankind, with 87 percent going *directly* to survivors of domestic abuse, human trafficking and sexual assault. Click here to read more about this incredibly important cause and for more information about how to get one of these necklaces for yourself. I have one, and I wear it proudly. With this one little purchase, you can make a big statement and do a whole lot of good!