If you’re on social media, you probably have seen an outbreak of a campaign of “me too”/#metoo across your feed. This isn’t a trend so much as it is an avalanche: People are posting the words “me too” if they have, at some point in their lives, been harassed or assaulted.
The fact is that most, if not all, women and queer folks have at some point in their lives been objectified – whether by someone catcalling to them and commenting on their body on the street, or by being groped or touched or fondled, or by being physically assaulted.
The omnipresence of these stories would have been enough—but there is also a culture at work in our country where these things are joked about, or swept under the rug, or written off as “your word against his.” When so many people can easily answer “me too,” there is a problem endemic in the very fabric of our country (a country, for the record, in which a self-professed “pussy grabber” is our president).
Our silence is acquiescence. So what do we do? How do we move from telling our stories to action?
Well, as parents, there is something concrete we can do. It is crucial for all of us to teach our children how to be respectful people, whatever our kids’ gender. But how? Here are some ideas.
1. Lay the groundwork for what consent is, and why it is always–always, with no exceptions–necessary.
If you have young children, teach them that their body is their own, and not for other people to comment on or to touch without permission. Teach them that if someone is behaving in a way that they don’t like that affects them or their body, they can and should say no, over and over again, because that no deserves to be respected.
I found it easiest to teach this idea with tickling. God, I love tickling my kids. They laugh in a ridiculous way and it’s so easy to be caught up in it – but the second they say “stop!” I stop. And I explain to them that they are right to say stop when they don’t want someone doing something to them, and that I will always respect what they want because no one has the right to do something to them that makes them uncomfortable.
When you have these talks, I can’t stress it enough: Highlight again and again (and again and again and again) that they can tell you anything and that your love for them is unconditional.
2. Teach them to respect the word “no” and to respect their own feelings, as well as those of others.
If they ever feel uncomfortable in any situation, they can and should talk about what makes them feel uncomfortable, and respect that gut feeling of discomfort. And, as a natural pairing with that idea, try to help them imagine how other people feel in various situations.
When I read a story to my kids, I always ask them how they think each of the characters feels. I think this conveys the importance of thinking about not just how you feel, but how other people feel, and recognizing that sometimes it is a difficult balancing act between the two—but the gut-based feeling of “no” wins.
3. Older children—boys and girls alike—need to be taught that consent should be explicit.
It is never, ever too late to have this discussion. Talks like these don’t have to be artificial and awkward— they can be prompted by something as simple as watching TV or movies and discussing whether or not behavior in a certain scenario is okay. I got more than I bargained for when I watched Sixteen Candles with my boys and basically found myself face to face with a scene in which people onscreen were joking about potential date rape. But it ended up prompting a great discussion.
Teach your kids that it’s great to say “yes”—but that it’s necessary to be keenly aware of when someone is saying no, whether it’s them or the other person.
It’s okay to tell your kids that they might feel silly asking, “Is this okay?” “Are you sure you want to do this?” etc. in a sexual situation. Hell, it might be uncomfortable enough imagining your kids as sexual beings. Whether you’re comfortable or you aren’t, though: Talk, talk, talk. Because hopefully, one day, your kid will do the very same thing with their consenting and loving partner.
4. Be an example of an “upstander”—both for others and for yourself.
I will be telling my children, as their ages are appropriate, about things that have happened to me, and what my responses to them have been.
There have been times when I did the right thing. When a famous 50-something billionaire put his hand up my skirt under the table at a college fundraiser, I took his hand, put it back on his own lap, looked him in the eye and said, “Do. Not. Touch. Me,” and then told a famous journalist, at the same table, what the guy had just done. I was 20 years old.
But I have not always done what I should have done, and I am ashamed of that. And I think it is important for my kids to know that about me, and to learn what they should and could do in comparison.
When a girl in my camp group when I was 13 told me she had been raped that past year, I had no idea what I should do with that information. I don’t know what eventually happened to her or her rapist, and even typing those words fills me with profound sadness and guilt.
When a college professor wrote me sexually explicit notes when I was an undergraduate, I laughed it off thinking, “Oh, this guy is already being charged with sexual harassment by the university—I don’t want to get involved,” not doing the math and realizing that by speaking up, I could have helped people who found themselves in much worse situations with this guy.
When a fellow freshman started kissing me in the common room kitchen, and I told him to stop and he didn’t, I left and never mentioned it again. Shouldn’t I have made it more explicit that this wasn’t just “fun,” it was wrong? Instead, we maintained a casual, “Hey, how are you?” friendship. I see him now on my Facebook friend feed, his beautiful young daughter on his lap. Would he want her to be treated that way by some guy in her freshman dorm? Does he even remember he did that to me? There are so many more stories to tell, and hopefully a lifetime to tell them. But we can use our own stories to have frank discussions with our kids about how to act.
Please, let’s start talking with our children to make sure their adult lives are very different from our own.