Saturday, March 7, 2015

Why I've made sure my children know they do not live in a world of pure safety: International Women's Day

I grew up in safe world, a secure world, a place where the word violence did not exist in my lexicon. It was the late 1970s, a time in which I fully embraced the teachings of Free to be You and Me, because the lessons learned reflected my experiences. After all, most mothers in my upper-middle class, academic neighbourhood worked in some capacity--why would they not? In my little-girl mind, mothers and fathers were by definition equals, given their bigger-than-life stature in comparison to me. 

I grew up in a safe world. In this world, Bad Things (if they existed at all) were almost mythical in nature, relegated as they were to ancient fairy tales and the occasional made-for-TV drama. In my mind, Bad Things included flying monkeys, the evil stepmothers of beautiful princesses, and the occasional monster under my bed. The closest that Bad Things ever came to the boundary of my safe world was when I saw a highly unsettling episode of Little House on the Prairie, where a young girl is raped by a man from the village. Of course, rape was not in my lexicon either, so I filed it away under the category of "Bad Things that Happened During Pioneer Times and Are Possibly Fictional Anyway".

I grew up in a safe world, a world in which women and men were not only equals, they were friends, spouses, colleagues. My immediate world was populated by three loving, often teasing males: my father and my older twin brothers, each of whom could be counted on to protect me should the need arise (such as the time I was drowning in a lake and the brother I annoyed the most dove into the water to rescue me).

As I grew from a little girl to a young girl to a young teen, my world also grew, but its bubble of safety never popped, choosing instead to expand in order to accommodate my perceptions of security. Again, the idea of violence in general, and violence against women in particular, never entered my mind, and why would it? Years of watching Free to be You and Me in grade school were followed by years of learning about teen pregnancy, STDs, and how to put a condom on a banana in high school. Never was even the possibility of being assaulted by a member of the opposite sex brought up and discussed. While there was one disconcerting episode from Facts of Life regarding possible sexual assault, that was an anomaly, and clearly associated with attending boarding school, so that was okay. As far as my memory goes, there were no similar episodes to be found on Love Boat, Silver Spoons, Growing Pains, or Who's The Boss (or, if there were, I missed that week). My world was filled with passing notes during classes with my friends, rushing home from ninth grade to do the 20-minute workout once the bell had rung, and spending hours on the family phone to discuss the latest gossip, while my beleaguered brothers complained in the background.

I grew up in a safe world, until one day, I didn't.

When I was sexually assaulted as a teenager in my family's garage, my initial reaction to what was happening was not fear, but shock. The assaulter was a seemingly "nice" boy; a stranger to me, yes, but one who had walked me home from the local grocery store, wanting to chat (the very fact I let a strange, large, somewhat ominous boy walk me home is proof of how safe I perceived my world to be). So he had six inches and seventy pounds on me, so he was saying somewhat inappropriate things about how he felt about me on our walk back to my house. So what? It was the middle of a Saturday afternoon, in the middle of an incredibly safe suburb, and he was just another fellow human being. 

During the initial moments when this large stranger lunged at me and pushed me against the wall inside my family's garage, my brain whirled with confusion. What was he doing? Didn't he realize we had been having a pleasant conversation? Why wouldn't he stop?

Violence against women was not in my lexicon.

After I was assaulted, I told no one, partly due to shame and guilt (I must have done something for a nice boy to hurt me that way!), and partly because I didn't have the framework or words to explain to others, let alone to myself, the violence that had happened to me.

Thus, once I had my own children, forefront in my mind was the decision to make sure that they would not grow up in such a safe world.

Consequently, despite an almost innate desire to completely protect my daughter and three sons from any knowledge that Bad Things (and Bad People) exist, I have made sure that they are more aware.

Yes, Free to be You and Me remains my basic philosophy for child rearing, all four of my offspring well-educated in the importance of treating males and females as equals. Men are not better. Women are not better. The world is diverse and each person deserves our respect.

Coupled with this important lesson, however, is knowledge, knowledge which I try to match with developmental level, an awareness that the world isn't completely safe, and that Bad Things do happen to Good People. From toddlerhood on, I've instilled the lesson that if lost, my child shouldn't seek out any random adult, but should approach  a mother with children first, if possible. Is that sexist of me? Absolutely. Is this a lesson I feel is still important? Sadly, yes.

Many other lessons have also been taught, with news stories often used to help hammer home whatever I'm trying to teach with my older two. 

Given that my littlest sons are barely past the preschool age, the lessons I've tried to bestow on them have been limited. With my eldest son, however, I made it a goal throughout his teenage years to emphasize the importance of not only never treating a woman with disrespect (physically or emotionally), but to not be a bystander if he observes others behaving in such a way. A few times I've overheard my now 18-year-old speaking about the need to respect women, which tells me that a lot of what I wanted to convey has gotten through.

With my now fifteen-year-old daughter, the lessons have been more complicated, with the importance of not frightening her having to be balanced with the realities of our world (violence against women must be in her lexicon). We've talked about cyber-bullying, slut-shaming, date rape, of the fact that I will not judge her or blame her for anything if something Bad happens. Of the fact that I will believe her, unconditionally.You name it, it's been discussed, all the while also trying to convey that so many men are decent and kind (like my father and my elder brothers were to me, like her dad, stepfather, and brothers are to her).

And so, as I reflect on International Women's Day, I'm reminded that the lovely sense of safety which I grew up with did not (and cannot) compensate for the terror experienced when being sexually assaulted as a teen.

No, I cannot prevent a similar Bad Thing from happening to my daughter, or to anyone else's daughter, for that matter. All I can do is augment the good lessons learned within the Free to be You and Me philosophy, reminding my children time and again that no one can truly be free until we live in a world in which the violence that is committed against women is universally condemned.

So no, my children do not grow up in safe world. I have made damn sure of that.

No comments:

Post a Comment