The look on my daughter’s face stopped me mid-sentence. She was upset. My words were not consoling her. They were making her feel even worse. And in that instant when I looked at her – really looked at her – I realised what a terrible mistake I’d made. Not just this time but every time I’d told her the same thing in response to her distress.
Let me back up.
Last school holidays I sent my two youngest kids to an art camp. My daughter is 11 and she goes to an all-girls school so even though she has two brothers, she doesn’t find herself mixing with boys a whole lot. So when she came home halfway through the week and told me she didn’t want to go back the next day because there were a couple of boys who were hassling her – teasing and in one case grabbing her roughly by the shoulder and taunting her during a game of handball – I wasn’t that surprised. She’s not used to being around rambunctious boys.
Listen: How to teach your son it’s okay to cry, and other lessons for raising a feminist boy. (Post continues…)
So without even thinking, I launched into the speech I’ve given her in the past when something similar has happened.
“Oh darling, sometimes when boys like a girl they’ll tease her or hit her just to sort of get her attention. He probably has a crush on you! That’s why -” And in that moment I stopped. Suddenly, I heard the words coming out of my mouth and I was shocked into a new understanding of them. From her point of view.
What the hell was I teaching my daughter? That when someone likes you they’re horrible to you? That they hit you? That they tease you? And that you should just suck it up and be flattered because it’s kind of adorable?
Oh God, who even am I?
“That’s what Dad said too,” she interrupted me angrily. “You don’t understand.”
I did understand. I do. It doesn’t matter why this kid picked on her. He picked on her. And it made her feel vulnerable and upset.