As a parent I think a lot about keeping my children safe. When they’re with me I do what I can with safety tips, always hoping that I’m teaching them lessons they’ll remember when we’re apart. Though I’m not sure how best to do this, I try to help them develop good “antennae”, to know to get away from a situation when it doesn’t feel right. I can only hope that, without making them fearful and suspicious, they’ll get it. But sometimes that’s not enough.
There are situations when one might least expect to be harassed and bullied. Early in graduate school I attended an academic conference where I got to meet many of the faces behind some of the papers I was reading for my thesis proposal. I had stimulating conversations with both men and women in the field and looked forward to an evening social event as a chance for further exchange of ideas. As I walked into the banquet hall, I was suddenly grabbed by one of the scientists I’d met earlier in the day. He tipped me back and kissed me full on the lips, much to the amusement and guffaws of others standing around him. No one said anything to him about his inappropriate behavior; no one asked if I was OK. Embarrassed and too shocked to say anything to him, I tried to laugh along with everyone else, pretending to be unphased by the surprise attack. However, I left as soon as I could. I didn’t know anyone very well, and it didn’t occur to me that I should (or could) say anything. The incident made me wary of ever attending that particular meeting again. And I wondered what I’d done…
I’ve very much appreciated Susan O’Doherty’s two recent columns and the comments that followed. It’s a reminder to find a way to talk about these issues with my kids. For now, I’ve framed the conversation in terms of bullying behavior. I’m pleased that I can build on the strong anti-bullying education my kids have already received through sports and at school, where children are encouraged to stand up to bullies and report incidents. They’re also told that it’s wrong to watch bullying behavior and not let someone in authority know. Anti-bully culture is strong among them right now. If only the message didn’t stop after school years.
At recent sex education workshops our kids attended, the educator reminded the children repeatedly that if they were touched in a way that made them uncomfortable (“lips are private parts too,”) to tell a trusted adult and to keep telling until someone listened. “Tell someone, tell someone, tell someone!” It was not about instilling paranoia; she merely reminded them of their boundaries and their rights. It doesn’t hurt to be reminded over and over so that one might respond without hesitation to any breach of boundary.
For now my husband and I enforce with both children that “No” always means “No” regardless of who says it or whether the speaker is yelling, crying, or laughing. And we remind them that it’s OK to say “No.” Or “NO!” (Except maybe when we ask them to clean up their rooms.)