Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Is it ever bad to be polite?

This is the kind of question that keeps my daughter up at nights. She is a deep thinker and wants to know the correct course of action for every conceivable situation. My answer, I think, was a bit more ferocious than she expected. Yes, sometimes it is dangerous to try to be polite. If you need to say no, do it, and do it as strongly as you need to for the person to listen. If you ever need to defend yourself, do it.  It is OK if you have to hurt someone to get away.

Ariana is amazingly empathetic and sensitive. She could easily take on the burdens of every person she meets. So, as much as I appreciate her tender heart, I want her to know that she does not have to take responsibility for other people's happiness. Most especially, she can control her own body and no one else has that right.

The statistics are that one in three girls will have inappropriate sexual contact with an adult before the age of 18. One in three. I believe that our society fuels that by the consistent messages sent to children, particularly girls, about being nice, obeying adults, not causing a fuss, and that it is OK for adults to do what they want to a child's body.

It would be easier to think that we only have to watch out for stranger danger, but the reality is that it is almost always a friend or family member, or someone that children are told to respect. It requires access to the child, and time together.

There are some things that we should do to protect our children:

* Respect their right to say no, even when it embarrasses us. Like when they don't want to kiss relatives who act hurt and offended. Each time we ingrain into their minds that they need to violate their own bodily boundaries to please someone else, we are eroding their ability to say no. When Ariana was about two, an adult friend of ours started to tickle her. She immediately and forcefully asserted, "Stop. This is my body and I say no. Stop or I'll tell." I was delighted that she knew how to assert her own boundaries.

* Let them know that we will believe them and take them seriously. I believe that the pattern we form here is important, not the topic. If your child gets into it with another child on a playdate, and we side with the guest out of a misplaced notion of courtesy, it leaves an impression on our child. If we have a habit of brushing off their feelings to placate someone else, they may well decide that it isn't worth telling us, anyway.

* Teach them that no one else should touch them or look (or take pictures) in areas that are covered by a swimsuit. Furthermore, they shouldn't touch other people there, either. This seems like common sense, but too often we add qualifiers about doctors or other family members, etc. Make sure that a child knows, first and foremost, that NOBODY should ever touch him/her in a way that feels uncomfortable. When I was eight, I questioned why my doctor pulled down my panties and touched me. He said that it would help my asthma. I didn't exactly believe it, but he was a doctor, so it was supposed to be OK. 

* If you get a bad feeling, trust it. Don't wait for facts to back it up--it is too late then.

* Teach your children the correct names for body parts.

* Read Protecting the Gift by Gavin de Becker. Rather than causing you to be afraid, it will help you and your child to feel empowered.

* Teach your children that it is OK to upset someone if they need to in order to protect themselves. It sounds obvious, but our children are still figuring out social interactions and when to give in to others and when and how to stand up for themselves. Think consciously about how hard it is for even adult women to say no when they fear offending someone. My mother was molested as a young child by a friend of her brothers. She didn't talk about it until about five decades later. She remembers that he had a broken arm, and since he was already hurt she felt sorry for him, and she didn't tell, even though she hated what he was doing, because it was so shameful for anyone to touch her there.

* If your children ever do tell you, worry first about protecting them, next about protecting other children, last about protecting any adults.  My parents did nothing when they found out that I was molested.  They didn't want to hurt his career if there could have been any possible innocent explanation of what he did.  Some parents are afraid of additional trauma if there is legal action and children have to testify, etc.  It can be paralyzing, even as an adult, especially when the abuser is well respected.  Here's the thing: inaction on your part will tell your children that their abuse doesn't matter as much as your comfort.  It will allow the abuser to continue to abuse many, many, many other children.  And then, as adults, your children will have to deal not only with your betrayal, but also with the crushing grief of wondering how many other kids were hurt like they were.

Obviously, this is an incomplete list, and I would again plead for you to read Protecting the Gift if you haven't yet done so. While I've tied this to sexual abuse, the truth is, this is a much broader issue. Our culture still stigmatizes women who stand up for themselves. We have to be the ones to change that. Of course we want our children to be courteous and socially adept. We want them to be respectful to others. That is good, but often we are not modeling the ability to enforce healthy boundaries. Our children are vulnerable, and they need to know that it is more important to protect themselves than to be polite.


Theresa said...

Excellent informative post. Thank you.

Heidi said...

wow, this is powerful. i will be sharing on facebook and my blog! thank you!

The Princess Poet said...

I've been thinking of this lately. Thank you. I too was touched inappropriately when I was younger, I haven't told my mum about it still. I told my hubby once we got engaged so I naturally i'm more aware about it but your post just put it succinctly, I will be reading PtG!