A few years ago, my daughter and I went to a movie together on a Saturday evening. As we exited the theater and entered the cavernous parking garage, I noticed a man trailing behind us. “Let’s wait for a second,” I instructed my daughter. The man also stopped. When we resumed walking, he, too, followed.
I guided my daughter over to a well-lit bank of parking meters, where shoppers and moviegoers congregated, searching for dollar bills and credit cards. We paused and observed that our uninvited companion had stopped as well, leaning against a wall and exchanging furtive glances with us. I told my daughter that we should return to the theater and find a security guard to escort us to the car. As we made our way back into the theater, the man stared right at us and then scampered away.
My daughter will be going to college next year, and I hope that we have taught her practical life lessons to go along with her knowledge of calculus and chemistry. She knows that she should be aware of her surroundings when she is in a public space or walking at night. I worry, however, that I may not have prepared her to protect herself adequately from predators who are not strangers — benign-looking bosses, acquaintances or coworkers lurking in well-lit research labs or at fraternity parties filled with new friends.
With the daily revelations about sexual misconduct in the halls of the Senate, and the entertainment and news industries, I have tried to keep my children from becoming paranoid that they are surrounded by unbridled lasciviousness. Part of being a parent, though, means that I must engage my children in conversations about protecting themselves from unwanted advances from both strangers and people they already know. An optimist, I harbor the belief that almost everyone my children will encounter will be fine people, or at least neutral in their behavior toward others.
Protecting our children from the small percentage of individuals who only seem to behave in a socially acceptable manner because they are scared of getting caught rather than out of a desire to conduct themselves honorably is not always so easy. Here are a few of the catch phrases I’ve used to help guide my daughter and my younger sons, too, as they navigate an often-confusing world.
1. “You Have a Mouth.”
When I was growing up, my mom and dad used to advise my siblings and me that if we had a problem, we could and should handle it by speaking up for what was right. In the Book of Leviticus, embedded in what is known as “The Holiness Code,” we are taught that we should “surely rebuke our neighbor so that we don’t become complicit in guilt.” I can hear my mom’s voice clearly asserting, “You have a mouth,” which translated into the imperative to tell someone that he or she was not behaving in a righteous way or informing someone else who was in a position to right the wrong.
Obviously, “having a mouth” is a tricky business when a person is struggling to protect herself or himself from someone with greater credibility, authority, or seniority. Yet, if we start teaching our children at a young age that they are allowed and even encouraged to speak up, that they have a duty to protect others by telling their story to someone who can help, they can help themselves and help prevent further victimization.
2. “Use Your Command Voice and Not Your Praise Voice.”
When we were training our rambunctious puppy, the trainer asked me to demonstrate how I walked with my fluffy little companion. After unsuccessfully managing to convince our dog to sit and drop a piece of garbage she had picked up on the sidewalk, the trainer chuckled and posed this question. “Why do you use your praise voice and not your command voice when telling her what you require?” This observation shook me to the core and helped explain more global frustrations I have experienced as a teacher and as a mother.
As parents, we can embolden our children to use their “command voices” to communicate with others when the stakes are high. Certainly, kindness and a gentle demeanor are wonderful attributes. Yet, when a person is trapped in someone’s office with a locked door facing unknown consequences, it’s time to use the command voice and use it forcefully. Knowing that it’s OK and even a good thing to use an authoritative tone when it’s needed can protect people we love from those who prey on people they perceive as weak.
3. “Leave the Room.”
In reading and hearing stories from victims of sexual misconduct, I am struck by the paralysis experienced by some of the individuals who were mistreated and exploited. Many of these victims seem to have been so shocked and stunned by what was happening to them they reacted passively to abuse, and then were filled with shame and remorse on top of the terrible events that they did nothing to bring on and for which they were in no way at fault. After each lurid news report of “surprise kissing,” groping, and other inappropriate actions, I turn to my daughter reciting the mantra, “Leave the room.”
There’s a caveat, of course, I explain: “It’s not always possible for victims of this kind of crime to get away from a predator or to find your way to a safe space. But, if you can possibly manage it, open a door, find a public area, get away from the person. Leave the room.”
“What should you do, if a future boss starts pleasuring himself in front of you?” I ask her in all seriousness.
“You’re crazy, Mom,” she replies, disgusted. “Fine. Leave the room,” she rolls her eyes and walks away.
In my mind, I’m prepping her in the same way the health teachers at school drill, “Stop, drop, and roll,” in the unlikely and horrendous case of a human catching on fire. Maybe, just maybe, if we preach, “Leave the room,” enough times, someone will actually hear a voice in their head encouraging them to get out of harm’s way.
In addition to our work raising valiant and courageous young people who will never commit these types of heinous acts, we must arm our children with confidence and the knowledge that they do not have to put up predatory behavior. It may be a first, small, but vital step toward preparing our kids for a wonderful but all-too-frequently dangerous world.
This post is part of the Here.Now. series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.