At Raising Arizona Kids, we’ve been having discussions very similar to those happening all across the nation: about the #MeToo movement, the empowerment of women and what all of this means for our daughters — and sons.
With disturbing sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations making regular headlines, we thought it might be helpful to ask experts what we, as parents, can be doing to help our children navigate this tricky terrain.
In this first installment of our #MeToo parenting series, we will be discussing how to raise daughters who feel empowered. In later issues, we will address specific steps parents can take to protect children from sexual predators. Lastly, we will take on the critical topic of teaching boys how to respect women and how to avoid being the victims of abuse themselves.
Daphne Young is vice president of communications and prevention education at Childhelp, a Phoenix-based national nonprofit that offers prevention, intervention and treatment programs for victims of child abuse and neglect.
Young says she was overjoyed when she first heard about the #MeToo movement — a social media phenomenon that encouraged women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted to share their stories with the hashtag #MeToo.
The goal was to help expose just how widespread this problem is for women, and to let victims of such behavior know that they are not alone.
“I’m all for making life uncomfortable for predators and acknowledging the pain of victims,” Young says. She believes it is helpful for young girls to remove the shame of abuse and instead shine the spotlight on attackers: “They are the ones who should be ashamed.”
Young feels optimistic about a day when society no longer looks the other way or normalizes abusive behavior. But she cautions that “it’s not going to happen without a fight” and says a hashtag is not enough.
“We are going to have to pass legislation and revisit how we deal with one another,” she warns. “Otherwise, when the the social media moment disappears, we’ll be right back where we started.”
She shares four tips for raising daughters who will be less vulnerable to abuse:
Acknowledge society’s mixed messages. In our culture, girls often receive mixed messages about their sexuality. “The conflicting narrative promotes prettiness and perfection on one hand, and then asserts that their looks/dress/attitude can account for their own abuse and victimization,” Young explains. “Highly sexualized images are promoted to young girls. We know from even pre-teen bullying that [girls] are mocked if they thwart these looks and chastised if they adopt them. The prevailing wisdom in rape trials for years was the ‘she asked for it’ [defense].”
And social media can be a double-edged sword: “Girls are growing up and seeing there’s a movement out there, so they can feel a great sense of connection. They are ‘more woke’ as they say. But there’s a danger in that predators can get more access to these young girls, too. People are able to exploit their vulnerabilities.”
Teach empathy, not submissiveness. Too much emphasis is placed on girls to be nice, Young says. “Throughout recent history, there has been a finishing-school ideal of feminine politeness, demureness and propriety that promotes our modern notion of a proper young lady and well-behaved child,” she says. “Unfortunately, this etiquette training also sets a stage for staying silent, keeping secrets and fearing to confront others even in the face of danger. ‘Niceness’ may be a curse for our daughters. Nice girls don’t rock the boat, they don’t speak until spoken to, they are beholden to a social sphere outside themselves, they are joiners rather than leaders and they often sublimate their feelings to keep others happy.”
The emphasis should shift to empathy: “We want kind daughters who are compassionate human beings, but we don’t want to train ‘nice’ girls who make ideal victims. We need to shift the conversation to showing empathy toward others (curbing bullying), understanding self-value through intellect/accomplishment rather than external qualities or the opinions of others and putting the power of voice into practice.”
Teach body safety. It’s important to talk to children — both boys and girls — about body safety, from a very young age. Childhelp has a prevention program called “Speak Up Be Safe” that helps children recognize unsafe situations or abusive behaviors. It also helps kids build a “safety network” of safe peers and adults.
Young says that giving children the right information and tools helps them from the “freezing up” that can happen when one is unprepared and afraid. Let them know that whatever happens, the brave survivor is never at fault.
Listen and remind your daughter that her voice matters. Open communication with daughters is vital to their sense of self-worth. “Engage your daughters in discussions of the day, keep an open dialogue flowing and value their positive actions. Instruct them that they are what they do, not how they look or how they are valued by society. Teach daughters that no matter what the magazines say, a core of inner strength and values is the ultimate beauty secret.”
Listen to your children and let them know you are on their side. “Believe your children,” Young says. “Know their patterns and behaviors so that when you see a change, a hurting heart, a secretive new attitude, emerging depression or any signs that your happy, empowered daughter is in crisis, you will have that open communication to start a conversation that can save a life.
Childhelp, a Phoenix-based national nonprofit, helps victims of child abuse and neglect through prevention, intervention and treatment. A 24/7 hotline is staffed by professional crisis counselors who can answer questions from children or adults: 1-800-4-A-CHILD.