How to Teach Young Girls to Demand Respect

I avoided reading stories about the Steubenville rape case for quite a while. As the mother of a young girl with another girl on the way, I didn’t think I needed the extra heartache. I consider myself well educated on the issue, so it was hard to see how I would get anything new from hearing yet another sad story.

How to Teach Young Girls to Demand Respect
Photo by Glenn Alexon

Then a friend on Facebook posted this: “I haven’t said anything about this yet, but I do think this is a great starting piece.” And linked here.

And it broke my heart.

As expected.

My thoughts immediately turned to my two girls. One who just turned five, and one not yet born. My mama bear roared.

“I have to protect them,” I told myself.

When One Bathtime Changed Everything

This is the second time my mama bear has roared at the idea of sexual assault in the last few months. The first time came when Abby was four years old. And I was entirely unprepared for it.

One night, I was sitting next to the tub while Abby was in the bath. She was chattering about her day, and to be honest, I was only half listening.

Abby: “…pulled down their* underwear and asked me to pull mine down.”

“Wait, what?” My heart raced. “What did you say?”

Abby repeated herself: “[Anonymous Child] pulled down their underwear and showed me their privates, and then they asked me to pull down my underwear.”

My eyes pricked with hot tears.

Oh, God, I thought. This can’t be possible.

I peppered Abby with follow-up questions until it was clear to me that yes, this was possible. And yes, this did happen to my child. My 4-year-old.

Words spilled out of my mouth, sounding like they were coming from someone else, not me:

“If someone ever asks to see or touch your privates, you tell a parent or a teacher right away.”

And: “Abby is in charge of Abby’s body.”

And: “Nobody should be touching your privates except you or the doctor if you’re in the doctor’s office.”

Then I had to leave the room.

The minute I stepped across the threshold, my chest heaved with quick, heavy breaths. My eyes filled. I had to get away from Abby so she didn’t see my panic.

Later, after I collected myself, I told myself I was lucky that Abby knew enough to say no in that moment, even before my bath-side speech. I told myself that it was good she felt comfortable telling me what happened. And that she didn’t feel ashamed to talk about it.

But still, it scared the shit out of me.

* I’ve changed pronouns to obscure as many details as possible about the exact situation and those involved.

What I Didn’t Find

Maybe I was an idiot to assume that I wouldn’t have to worry about explaining inappropriate touch to a 4-year-old. We’ve since had several (calmer) conversations about the topic. So much so that Abby’s getting sick of me going over the same concepts again and again. “I know that already,” she says, exasperation in her voice. So I tell her that sometimes we need to talk about important things over and over.

Since I first read about Steubenville a few days ago, I’ve been searching for how you’re supposed to talk to a very young girl about this. Yes, ONE DAY, we will have talks about sex and respect and drinking and all that. But how do you lay the groundwork for those later talks, so your teenage girl will listen to you?

I haven’t yet found practical tips targeted at a mom of a very young girl. I did find a letter to a teenage girl, a letter to sons, and even what mothers must do for their sons, no matter how young.

But I will not sit idle, watching the years pass by, and just hope my teenager will listen when the time comes.

Why This Post

I’ve been reflecting on what I can teach Abby now that will serve her well later on in life. My fiance and I have been talking about it off and on since I read that first article.

And I was going to keep it all to myself. It’s a touchy subject, and I’ve now read enough blog posts regarding this case to realize bringing it up is risky. Because you can get some pretty upsetting responses.

You can't shut me up
Photo by Jennifer Moo

But you know what? I think we’ve all had enough silence on this topic.

To be clear, this is not what I am talking about: teaching a girl how not to get raped.

That said, I do believe that I can lay some groundwork with my girl so that she respects herself and her body. So that she demands respect. So that God forbid, if she ends up in that 20% of women who is sexually assaulted, she will know in her heart that what happened was wrong, and it wasn’t her fault, and she needs to tell someone.

5 Ways to Teach a Young Girl to Demand Respect

Throughout, I say “your child” but I wrote this for anyone who has a young girl they care about in their lives. The truth is that sometimes parents can’t get through to kids in the way a favorite aunt or uncle or cousin or family friend can.

1. Talk About Personal Boundaries

When you find yourself in a situation with your child where your someone oversteps your personal boundaries or your child’s, call attention to it.

A couple weeks ago, Abby and I were standing in an aisle at the grocery store. I was comparing the labels of a couple prenatal vitamins, and Abby was looking at the display of baby toys behind me.

A man walked into the aisle and upon seeing that we were in his way, he put his hand on Abby’s head and steered her out of his way.

He didn’t say “excuse me.” He didn’t say anything. He just put his hand on Abby’s head and treated her like a thing in his way. Would he have done that to an adult woman? At first, I doubted it.

But Abby and I talked about how he shouldn’t have touched her without her permission. That wasn’t okay. She felt the wrongness of it even before I brought it up, which is a good sign. Then I realized that I have sometimes been in that situation, where a man – stranger or acquaintance or co-worker – will put his hand on my back or my shoulder to move me if it’s crowded and I’m in his way. It’s subtle, and it doesn’t happen every week, but our conversation made me remember.

So later that week, when I was waiting in a line and a man was standing very close to me – so close he was bumping into me every few minutes – I was more conscious of it. I turned around, looked him in the eye, and said “excuse me,” with a look on my face that translated as “back the eff off.” Which he did.

2. Honor Her Desire for Privacy

Private
Photo by The-Samizdat

She gets to decide who sees her body. So if she wants the door shut while she’s changing clothes or taking a bath, honor that.

If you’re a parent who’s seen that little body since day one, this may be hard to accept.

But it’s not about you.

If she hasn’t asked for privacy, you can start pointing out situations where you need privacy and explain that’s why you close the door. Like when you go to the bathroom, take a shower, or get dressed. She needs to know it’s okay to set boundaries for who sees your body and when.

3. Never Force Her to Show Physical Affection

When it comes to showing physical affection, it’s your child’s job to decide what she’s comfortable with. Don’t force or coerce or guilt her into being physically affectionate with anyone, including yourself.

We do this often with family members. When we visit the grandparents, we say: “Now go give Grandma and Grandpa a hug and a kiss.”

Instead, lean down and say quietly so others can’t overhear: “Do you want to give Grandma and Grandpa a hug and a kiss?”

If she doesn’t feel comfortable with that, that’s her choice. Later, you can talk about it and explore why she didn’t. Maybe she needed to warm up to them after not seeing them for a while. Maybe she just isn’t close enough to them yet. Maybe old people creep her out.

Bottom line? Her body, her choice.

4. Be Proactive on the Topic of Inappropriate Touch

This is the one that caught me off guard. Who expects to have to talk to a 4-year-old about this?

I’m lucky that Abby said no to the child who asked to see her privates, but I wish I had talked to her before it ever happened. What if she hadn’t said no? What if the scenario was then repeated again and again? What if it escalated from there?

With my next girl, I won’t wait til something happens before we talk about it.

5. Listen When She Says No

If you’re tickling your child or showing physical affection and she pulls away or says “no, stop” or “I don’t like that” – listen.

It may hurt your feelings a little in the moment, but remember what matters more.

She needs to know that when she says don’t touch my body, the people who respect her – the people who deserve her love – will listen.

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Your Turn

How can we lay this groundwork with young girls? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.

  • eric thompson

    really good post. thanks for sharing! :)

    granted that i’m not child psychologist or a clinical expert on child behavior, but 4 year-olds playing “show-me-yours-i’ll-show-you-mine” isn’t that uncommon, and is generally not in the realm of “inappropriate touch” or other scary scenarios. kids at that age are still discovering their bodies, and so long that it’s not overtly sexual or in any way coercive there’s probably little to worry about until they get older or seem overly fixated on such things.

    having said that, it starts to get weird and inappropriate when kids hit age 7 or so, and definitely any time that the age range between participants is significant. and of course, any time it becomes coercive (when “no” or “go away, poopyhead!” isn’t accepted) is a big red flag (but again, at that age it may not be in the realm of “inappropriate touch” – it could just be the child instigator has social boundary issues).

    also, regarding the notion of not forcing physical affection: sometimes a refusal to show affection (such as the “give grandma a hug” scenario) is more about the child attempting to assert control over a social situation, rather than any kind of protection of boundaries. of course, it’s best to identify when to let it go, but sometimes it’s okay to let them know that saying no to a hug isn’t acceptable. and of course, trust your instincts in any given situation.

    finally, be careful how readily your subconscious goes from small child behavior to things like Steubenville. they’re on different ends of the spectrum, and you can give yourself ulcers if you don’t recognize the gulf that lies between the two. you’re doing the right thing in introducing notions of respect and physical boundaries, and of course listening to your child is key.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sallykilpatrick Sally Kilpatrick

    Great post! Thanks for sharing my two letters up there. Sounds like we’ve both really been struggling with the whole thing. It scares me half to death to send my children out there into that world, but I’m with you. I’m not going to waste my time or energy being made that I have to teach my daughter how not to be raped. No, I’m going to be pragmatic and honest and help her stay out of those situations as best she can. As for my son? He’d best toe the line. Blessedly, from what I know of him so far, I really think he will. Our best bet as parents, I think, is to model the proper behavior. I know I’m flawed as a mother, and I sometimes worry there aren’t enough good men like my husband to go around.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cynthia.london Cynthia London

    Some abusers target children between ages 2-4 because they assume the children will not be able to recognize/articulate what happened to them.

    Books like:
    My Body is Private or
    http://www.amazon.com/Private-Albert-Whitman-Prairie-Books/dp/0807553190/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1363974178&sr=8-1&keywords=my+body+is+private

    Your Body Belongs to You
    http://www.amazon.com/Your-Belongs-Cornelia-Maude-Spelman/dp/0807594733/ref=pd_sim_b_1 are a great way to teach young children about their rights to their bodies.

    Also, consider supporting Erin Merryn, who is working hard to pass laws requiring education about this subject starting in preschool in all 50 states.

  • frugalfamilytimes

    Great post, Kelly! I’d add too, we teach these same things to our son. If he has his feelings and body respected, he will expect to give the same respect as well. :) Robin

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  • mai

    I’m new to this post and this blog, but I’m loving all of it so far. I have a young niece and nephew and am working on adopting one of my own. I’m not a psychologist or even a “real” mom yet, but I personally can’t stand it when kids are forced into showing physical affection. Hugs and kisses are very intimate and making a child participate against their will, even with a relative, teaches them that they have to submit and allow almost anyone to handle them. I try to give my niece a choice – when we say goodbye to people she can choose to hug, high-five, or just wave goodbye. She gets to determine the level of intimacy she is comfortable with, and she can be polite and happy while doing it. You don’t see this level of physical affection being forced on adults, so why do we demand it of our kids? If I left a business meeting and gave all my coworkers, let alone my boss, a big hug and a sloppy kiss goodbye, I would be brought up on sexual harassment charges, not told I was cute and affectionate.

    • http://idealistmom.com/ Kelly @ IdealistMom.com

      Mai, I’m so glad to hear this post resonated with you. I feel it’s so important, like you said, not to force kids into showing physical affection. I love how you give choices to the kids in your life. That’s a great idea.

      And your metaphor for the workplace…SPOT ON. It seems so ridiculous when put in that perspective!