Parenting is filled with “firsts” — and last month was the first time I, as a mom, I wanted to rip a little boy apart.
This happened when my daughter told me a classmate was hitting and pushing her on the bus. Upon further questioning, it became clear this little boy was trying to get her attention. My initial response — aside from thinking: why have we not moved beyond this? — was a practical one: How can I raise my three daughters to stand up for themselves?
This is a heavy responsibility, but one I accept with open arms. After all, like most women, I experienced my own share of harassment as a girl. Thankfully, my own mother instilled in me the values of self-worth and treating others with respect. She led by example — and I’ve taken her lessons to heart, first as a young girl and, then, as the mother of young girls.
A memory that had receded into the cobwebby corners of my mind came back to me when my daughter told me her story. In middle school, a boy said something incredibly lewd to me as we were walking home one day.
When he repeated himself, I became enraged: “You can’t speak to me that way,” I said “I’m telling your mom!”
We were at an age where telling someone’s mom was the worst punishment you could imagine. But I wasn’t going to back down. I kept 20 paces behind him as we walked through our neighborhood. What was he going to do? He had to go home, he could not get rid of me, and he could not escape his mother.
Upon arriving at his doorstep, he quickly ducked into his house. When I rang the bell his older brother answered. With as much confidence as I could muster I said, “I need to talk to your mom.” He informed me she was still at work, so I said I would come back later.
As I turned to leave, the offender sheepishly came to the door and apologized. He did not want to chance his mom finding out — and he knew I was serious about returning. I was practically vibrating as I walked home, satisfied knowing he will treat me with respect or else! And it worked: The boy never bothered me again.
But now, I was concerned as my daughter told me and my husband what had happened to her. Listening to her talk brought back memories of one of my earliest uncomfortable parenting situations: when a well-meaning adult requests a hug and my child does not want to acquiesce.
A toddler rebuffing an adult’s advances can be embarrassing and awkward. Nonetheless, I told my girls it’s OK to say no to hugs. Instead, I told them, they could say, “No thank you.” They could say, “Maybe later,” or, “How about a high-five?” From an early age I told my girls: You are in charge of your body, and no one can do anything to you that you do not like.
As soon as my daughters were able to communicate their preferences their self-autonomy began. This is powerful stuff to a toddler, and sometimes difficult for a loving parent to remember. When my kids say “no” when I want to give them a cuddle or kiss, I respond by backing off and saying, “It’s your body, so I’ll stop.”
Therefore, when my daughter told me about the boy on the bus, my husband and I repeated the lesson: “You are in charge of your body.” We told her she needs to tell the boy to stop, and reminded her to tell a grown-up if he does not listen. She gave us a quizzical look in return. With this, we put our words into action and began to role play.
I took the part of our daughter. My husband played the role of little boy bothering her. The scene was the school bus. We rearranged our kitchen chairs to be a school bus seat. For authenticity, we gently bounced up and down (mimicking those crappy shocks that are the hallmark of every school bus, everywhere). Then, my husband proceeded to push me, bother me, and pretend to smack me.
All three of my daughters thought this scene was hilarious. Amid the giggles from the audience I turned to him, gestured with my finger pointing, and — channeling my middle-school self — loudly exclaimed with force, confidence and bravado, “You need to stop that! I do not like it. You are not being nice and you cannot do that to me!”
With this, my husband withdrew like a puppy with his tail between his legs.
We asked our daughter, “Do you understand?” She nodded, but I continued to feel a sense of uneasiness about the whole situation.
The following day, my daughter described her triumph with gusto. She said when he started to call her names, with great force she told him he was in the wrong, and he needed to stop bothering her.
My maternal instinct wants to protect my daughters from every negative encounter. I know this is out of my control. However, I feel confident that this early experience in standing up for herself will help build a foundation that my daughter will build upon to grow into a strong, independent woman.
As much as I initially wanted to rip the little boy apart, he will probably not be the last to do or say something untoward to my daughter. As such, he will not be the last to experience her wrath. Shakespeare may have, in fact, been thinking of her when he wrote: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.”