I was having coffee the other day with a friend and our discussion inevitably turned to the recent #MeToo campaign. We are both mothers of young children and we are both committed to modeling and sharing our values with our kids. But we were both struck by how difficult it is to navigate this particular social issue with our children. My kids are younger (under 8 years old) and she has a few older children, but we both related to each other’s struggle to find the right words to have this particular “talk.”
From my perspective, besides an awareness of basic anatomy, my children aren’t aware of sex at all. So our first conversations are not going to be about assault and sexual violence. My friend’s children are a little older, but she still has the impulse to protect them and let them remain children. She does not want to burden them with fears and adult concerns. How do we keep them safe without cutting their childhood’s short?
The Dr. Nassar case makes it painfully clear that there are people who most certainly cut childhoods short and it is our job to do the best we can to protect and prepare children for whatever they may encounter when outside of our care.
How do we parent in the age of #MeToo? For me, the answer is in 3 personal core values that I hope to continue to share with and model for my kids regardless of their age: consent, empathy, and courage.
Consent. Consent is not about sex, it is about respect. Children can begin to learn this from their first day of life. As they grow and begin to interact with siblings and friends they learn that their touch can be a gift or a power to wield against others. We can teach them to ask permission before they touch a friend or take their toy. Your friend doesn’t want a hug right now, that’s ok! Let’s ask if they’d like a high-five instead. And they can learn to speak up for their own bodies: Stop. I don’t like to be tickled. Please don’t touch my body that way. In these everyday interactions they learn the valuable lesson that their body is theirs alone. That their desires are good and deserve to be respected. They learn to reciprocate and listen to others, regardless of how they may want to play or be affectionate. And they learn if someone doesn’t respect their body they can come ask for help, no matter what.
Empathy. Young children are learning how to step outside of their own egos and interact with the people around them in a healthy way. A key step in this process is learning to empathize, to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and feel how they feel. It’s our job, as the adults in their lives, to help them slow down enough to understand how their actions and choices make others feel. The social skills our kids learn on the playground with friends lays the groundwork for their future adult relationships. Both sharing how they feel and listening to how someone else feels are building blocks for self-worth, greater empathy, and positive adult connections. Read books together and ask, “How do you think that character felt…” or “How would you feel if that happened to you?” Giving kids real and fictional examples to practice flexing those emotional muscles will help them grow to be adults who listen to and respect others.
Courage. #MeToo stories are so powerful because they broke the silence. Time magazine even honored the “silence breakers” because we know that a lie gains power when it silences the truth. The courage it takes to tell the truth when no one wants to hear it is so hard. Emboldening our children to be courageous in their lives now – in small, everyday ways – prepares them to be courageous, compassionate adults. Stand up to a friend who says something mean, sit with the lonely kid at lunch, tell the truth even if their are consequences are all examples of small, courageous moments we can celebrate with our kids. They are especially powerful when shared alongside a story of your own courage: a time when you were scared to have a hard conversation with a loved one but did it anyway, a time when you had to do a difficult project or confront a colleague at work but chose to be brave even when it was scary.
Wouldn’t the world be a better, safer place for everyone – not just women – if we all had more empathy, respect for each other, and courage? These three values can continue to be taught as kids grow and can expand to include & support more complex sex education. These are the values we can model and celebrate, stories we can share around the table. I want to see a world where our kids can say, “I was safe. I felt respected. I was heard and understood.” And their friends can say, “Me too.”