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7 Ways to #MeToo-Proof Your Kids

A psychologist weighs in on how to combat gender violence in daughters and sons

Published on: January 22, 2018

teen-girl

As a psychologist, I've been consulted by moms and dads in the last few weeks who want to know how to #MeToo-proof their daughters — and their sons.

Should Mom share her experience with date rape? Do girls benefit from Dad repeating the refrain, “Guys only want one thing”?  And does wagging fingers at sons really help protect them from klutzy, sexualized and impulsive behaviors that could harm women?

There is no guaranteed protection from a #MeToo moment. Unfortunately, sexual violence and harassment can happen to anyone. But there are ways to mitigate the potential for risk.

The first priority is awareness. The zeitgeist of the #MeToo movement is the recognition that the sexual mistreatment of girls and women is pervasive, systemic and under-recognized. Being considered “less than” and an object for male pleasure underpins the whole continuum of sexual mistreatment, harassment and violence. These patterns persist in our culture because they are tolerated, denied, accepted, encouraged and modeled.

Understanding that sexual mistreatment exists on a continuum is the next priority. Yes, it can go both ways, with both men and women disregarding and disrespecting the boundaries of others. But the majority of infractions happen to women, ranging from sexual teasing to coercion to threats to assault.

Another priority is empathy for adolescents. Given how confusing and complex sexualized interactions are for adults, take a moment to consider teens. Flirting and experimenting with nuances of attraction can be exhilarating. But what happens when it goes too far?

If a boy is sexually offensive, he needs to apologize and back off. If a girl has been offended and ignored, she needs to be assertive. But, wait: Boys have been encouraged to be strong, dominant and bold, and girls are supposed to be nice, pretty, appealing, accommodating and never angry. Teens are caught in the crossfire of gendered norms and the social-emotional skills they need for preventing #MeToo moments.

Imagine how hard this new harassment training is for teens, challenged by the new urges of puberty, the lag of self-control capacity relative to the zeal of exploration, the pressure to be cool among peers and the threat of looking weak or wimpy — for guys and girls!

Most teenage daughters have already experienced sexual taunts, mistreatment or unwanted physical touch. It’s important that parents focus on these ordinary offenses that surface frequently, not just the extremes of rape and abuse.

Likewise, gendered pressures on boys that promote the swagger of cool machismo are alive and well. The hyper-masculinized man lacks empathy in social relations with girls, but he also can’t be vulnerable, which leaves him at risk for suicide and drug addiction when stress overwhelms. Boys benefit from a more nuanced version of masculinity, too.

The enemy in the #MeToo saga is the gendered norms that got us here in the first place.

The enemy in the #MeToo saga is the gendered norms that got us here in the first place.

Teaching our kids about the nuances of sexual harassment and violence is part of our job as parents. Like discussing all manner of sex education topics, conversations can be immunizations. A dose of discussion about the pressures of hyper-masculine toxicity or female subordination can help to protect teens from big exposures they’ll encounter out in the world.

Make sure you cover the downsides of speaking up, too. Ideally, everyone would confront offenses, but let’s face it, whistleblowers can be shunned, teased, retaliated against and fired, not to mention harmed emotionally. And what is the solutions for those problems? A sea change in attitudes and direct intervention — which is what the #MeToo movement is all about.

7 Tips for #MeToo Protection

Take advantage of news stories to jump-start conversations about the continuum of sexual mistreatment, harassment and violence.

Avoid lectures and focus on your teen’s and others’ analyses of the root causes of the problem and its solutions.

Discuss the ways that media and our consumer culture promote and maintain sexual harassment and violence.

Include discussion of “micro-aggressions,” or what might seem like little nicks to the dignity and disrespectful treatment of women, and how they set the scene for the extreme versions.

Appreciate the way boys are pressured to be sexual initiators and complicit with gendered expectations. Encouraging heroism is a better approach than shaming and lecturing.

Remember that sons need protecting, too. Instead of demonizing men, talk about the cultural attitudes reflected in guys getting attention for sexist jokes and objectifying women. Encourage both sons and daughters to be upstanders for gender justice.

Make sure your daughter receives recognition and self-esteem for skills and qualities that don’t rely on being merely a pleaser, accommodator and approval seeker.

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