As I See It? 6-25
Sunday, January 6, 2008

By Tafeni English
 
    I'm not sure how my 8-year-old daughter talked me into it, but it was my turn to be host parent for the Best Friends Forever Club outing. My daughter has spent most of her 3rd- grade school year proving her worthiness to be one of the BFFs, and you can imagine the many "talks" we've had about it. They ranged from making friends to hurt feelings to being overjoyed that she was finally accepted.
     I'm not sure how I feel about watching two hours of ice-skating, but the girls are having a great time, laughing, screaming and yelling: "No, over here with me," one says. "Give me your hand," cries out another. And then, "Okay, it's time for the BFF hug."
     Here it begins. "No — don't hug me. You are always doing that," one of the girls objects. The others don't like that response: "You can't be in the BFF club if you don't hug your friend," one of them retorts. Before the situation turns ugly, I call the girls off the ice and sit them down to talk.
     Very quickly, we are discussing boundaries and personal space. I explain why it's important they respect one another's right not to be touched, even if it seems harmless to someone else. But as we're talking, I am also thinking about another discussion I need to have — one between a mom and her daughter. One that I have been avoiding. I need to talk to my child about sexual harassment. I need to admit to myself that she's not too young to hear this.

All too soon

     In fact, she already hears about sexual harassment a lot. Media accounts are filled with reports of sexual harassment at schools, and of course children talk to each other about much more than we like to imagine. Although there is controversy about the fine line between innocent childhood or adolescent behaviors and true harassment, it's still important for parents to begin a dialogue with their children.
     Sexual harassment causes emotional distress, and as parents we have to be ready to change our own attitudes about the subject. Children may or may not know that what they may think of as "normal" behaviors are inappropriate and could be labeled as harassment. Even more importantly, children need to know if they are being sexually harassed.
     The odds are disturbingly high. According to the American Association of University Women's How to Stop Sexual Harassment in School, 81 percent of children will experience some form of sexual harassment during their school lives — 27 percent will experience it often. Worse, much of it will either be dismissed as flirting or never be reported, since children are not likely to reveal incidents of sexual harassment to either teachers or parents.
     As parents we need to continuously teach our children to talk to us. The most important thing we can do is keep the lines of communication open. Our children need to know they have a safe environment in which to share even very troubling experiences.

Some tips and resources

     A number of resources are available to parents to help begin the discussion on sexual harassment.

Here are some things I like to remember:
•    Pay attention to your child. Parents know when something has changed. Children who are experiencing sexual harassment are often anxious, withdrawn or depressed. They may fear going to school, become overly concerned about their body image, or, just the opposite, lose concern for their personal appearance.
•    Tell your kids what sexual harassment is: unwanted sexual attention can be verbal or physical. Tell them it is illegal and a violation of their rights, even in a school setting.
•    Be prepared to give them examples. This is the time to move beyond the "good touch/bad touch" conversation. Explain it so there is no doubt: sexually derogatory name-calling, grabbing, patting, comments about bodies, sexual remarks, gestures, demeaning jokes, and letters or notes containing sexual things.
•    Assure them it's not their fault. Children need to feel safe telling someone if they are being sexually harassed. Children who are sexually abused experience shame, embarrassment and fear. Children need to know that sexual harassment is never okay.
•    Encourage children and students to keep record of incidents, writing them down with the date and time. And report it.
•    Tell them to trust their instincts about when they are in a problematic situation. Teaching children to trust their judgment increases self-confidence and self-esteem.
Always there
I promised my daughter that I would always be there for her, that I would protect her from any form of abuse. Like any parent, it is my hope that my daughter enjoys her childhood and her life without any physical or emotional wounds. Now, I also know the odds, and therefore the importance of adding my experience and my guidance as a mother to give her every edge I can.
I know I would have appreciated my mother spending more time talking with me about sexual harassment. We had several brief, repetitive conversations, all amounting to: "Don't you let anyone touch you anywhere you don't like." I wouldn't, but I never knew what to do if they just did it anyway. Did that include the boys who hit me on the rear when I got off the school bus? Did this mean the boys who would pull at my skirt and tease me for not having a boyfriend?
I don't want these same questions to confuse my daughter or inhibit her from asking about harassment — or telling me when it happens. Like all parents, I'm guilty of saying something bad will never happen to be my child. But I have to get real. I have to think it very well could be my child. I have to talk to her.

Tafeni English is a former director of Teaching Tolerance's Mix It Up program and is founder of Eve's Circle, a counseling program for young girls based in Montgomery, Ala.This essay originally appeared on Tolerance.org, the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama.

 

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