kids

Mia Freedman: "I've said this to my daughter so many times. I am mortified."

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.

"My words were not consoling her. They were making her feel even worse." (Image supplied.)
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So my dilemma is this: I don’t want to burden my daughter or overly dramatise the situation by using words like “sexual harassment” or “bullying”.

I don’t want her to perceive herself as a victim. And yet I certainly don’t want to convey that being hit or teased by a boy is just something she should shrug and forgive in the name of flattery just because some kid might have a crush on her. Or he might just be a little dick.

What the hell am I teaching her about her future relationships if I lay down this idea that bad treatment is somehow a compliment, something to be endured and not make a fuss about? Shit.

So what do I say?

The first thing I said was sorry. “You know, you’re totally right. I’m sorry. It’s not cool what I said. Teasing and grabbing someone is not OK, not ever, whether someone has a crush on you or not.”

How easily those words came out. I know it was said to me growing up as an explanation by well-meaning adults for bad behaviour by boys towards me and so often as a parent, you find yourself unconsciously parroting things that were said to you without questioning them.

Like, “you can’t go swimming for half an hour after you’ve eaten or you might drown.” Or “put a cardigan on for heaven’s sake or you’ll catch a cold.”

There’s an important difference though between propagating old wives’ tales and laying down the foundations for your daughter to put up with abuse from men as she gets older.

We want to empower our daughters with knowledge, understanding and the confidence to say, “Stop. I don’t like that. Stop it.”

This was all swirling around my mind when I read this week that 51 per cent of Australian students describe being sexually abused or harassed at university. My first reaction, like most, was one of horror. What on earth are we doing wrong as parents, as a society if so many young men are abusing women? I’ve thought about it more and I wonder if it’s just that young women now have a name for something we used to just put up with when we were their age - and older.

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I wonder if it’s just that someone is doing surveys and identifying and quantifying behaviour that has until recently been considered just ‘boys being boys’ or ‘just a joke’ or ‘take it as a compliment’ or ‘harmless fun’ - and still is by many people (and by ‘people’ I mean the boys doing the sexual harassing, the victims of this kind of behaviour are never having fun).

Listen: The "creepshot"  is another form of harassment women have to deal with. (Post continues...)

I’m proud of the young women who are naming and shaming this behaviour. I’m glad that it is being exposed. And I am hopeful that universities will address it.

Sometimes it feels like we’re making huge feminist strides for equality. Sometimes I feel all Beyonce and pumped and like my daughter truly will have all the same rights and opportunities (including the right to play handball and go to university without being subject to sexual harassment or abuse). And sometimes I feel like we still have so far to go.

Both can be true. Both are true.

Attitudes towards women start so early. They start in the playground and they start in the conversations we have with our kids at home. When I was benignly dismissing my daughter’s complaint that she felt a bit unsafe in the playground around these boys who were targeting her, her younger brother was listening.

“But what are you teaching the boys!” people will cry and so they should. “Why do you have to talk to your daughter about boys behaving badly! Why don’t you talk to the boys about how to behave.”

Simple. We need to do both. The thing is though, the kid who grabbed and teased my daughter won’t go home and tell his mother what he did so she’ll never know. Since boys rarely behave that way in front of their parents or teachers, much of this behaviour only surfaces in the homes and with the parents of girls.

So we have to give them words and ways to deal with it. I’m still working on what they should be. Suggestions welcome.

My husband suggested punching the boy in the face. I think he was joking. I think.

What have you been saying to your kids that you wish you hadn't?

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