I cant shield my daughter from sexism and racism. But she will be more empowered to confront it than I ever was
A few months ago I met my husband and five-year-old daughter at one of those soft-play centres. This one has two storeys of obstacle course for the kids behind a floor-to-ceiling net on one side; and on the other side, Wifi and cheap wine for the parents. While my husband had been working at a small table, our daughter had befriended two kids a brother and sister in the ball pit.
That boy keeps asking me to play a game with him and I dont want to, she came out and told us.
Thats OK, I said. You dont have to.
The boy looked to be around her age and the girl a little older. Shortly after, we left the centre and in the car on the way home she said again that the boy kept asking her to play a game. And then she said it again.
What game did he want to play? I asked from the front seat.
Sits, she said.
Sits? I said. Whats that?
He said one person lies down and the other pulls down their underwear and sits on top of them and moves around.
My husband and I looked at each other and I turned to face her. Wed talked theoretically about what to do when you dont feel safe and who is allowed to touch your private parts, but this was the first time any of it was put into practice.
She told us how she kept saying no and how his sister kept saying that she didnt have to do it.
My words stuck to the inside of my mouth. There was relief that our daughter had handled the situation well, but repulsion at what this boy had suggested.
That evening I talked to her about it more, I asked how she felt, told her she responded well and we practiced saying no even when we feel scared by the person were saying no to. Its a conversation weve revisited.
People talk about how we have to protect our children more than ever, but abuse has always happened; the biggest difference is that we are more likely to talk about it now, and are hopefully making progress at holding perpetrators to account. I went to a Catholic school where rumours were rife about abuse by a teacher; but we were not encouraged to question adults, especially not those in authority.
One morning, when I was 14, I was walking to school with a friend and there was a man jogging on the other side of the road. He was wearing a T-shirt and Wallace and Gromit boxers and masturbating as he watched us. When we got into school, we hung back after registration and told a teacher, who we respected and loved, what had happened. She told us not to make a fuss and distractedly tidied her desk. I didnt tell my parents. Not because they wouldnt have listened or believed me; we are close and they would have. But because when I was growing up, these conversations were rare. Children werent shown how to use their voice to challenge adults.
But its not just abuse, as a society were rethinking power, race and gender (and so much else). My daughter has so many questions about all these things. And so do I. Talking to her about it helps me in my thinking. While the conversations with my adult friends about #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and living under Trump are more nuanced, the conversations I have with my daughter are crystalized. Someone told her in the playground that Trump puts kids in cages, she came home and said she didnt think its true is it?
Last year, she was at a predominantly white school and told me she didnt like her brown skin. While I hated hearing her say that, I was glad we were able to talk about it, rather than glossing over how we look and are different to the people around us. A couple of years ago she was given a childrens book about Rosa Parks. At first I put it up on a high shelf because I didnt want to expose her to such overt racism. Introducing children to hateful imagery can feel like were robbing them of innocence. But having read it to her recently, and having her want to talk about why black people were treated differently in the book, I hope it can make her question why black people are treated differently today. Again, structural racism and even police brutality arent anything new, theyre just more openly discussed now.
As Im unlearning a lifetimes beliefs of what gender is, shes learning it for the first time, quicker. She fields direct but flippant questions at me over whether there are rules over who can wear a skirt, or if men can have babies. I try not to miss a beat in my response but often Im still figuring out the answer myself. She has her own response to the clothes question now: Girls can wear skirts, boys can wear skirts, everyone can wear what they want. And plenty of boys she knows do. Classrooms are more naturally accepting of difference than workplaces.
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