Friday, January 31, 2014

The Value of Saying No

As I was walking into the grocery store a small voice behind me said, "No," followed by a woman's voice saying sharply, "Don't say 'no,' it's not polite."

As I wended my way through the aisles, our paths crossed several times. The 3 or 4 year old girl with brown braids silently following her mother and the shopping cart. Once I smiled at her and she stared back, sad eyes in a tired face, without responding.

The mom ignored her, no chatting about what they were buying, no talk about what they would do when they arrived home, nothing to engage a small child. It was clear that this child had been told no, had been shut down, often enough that she knew her place. Be quiet, don't be a bother, don't voice your feelings, and be a good girl.

Were these the lessons this mom had learned when she was a girl? Where these the messages she meant to pass on to her daughter?

As the mother of three teenage girls I wanted to stop her and tell her about the future her daughter might face if she internalized these messages and then went out into world as a young woman. What kind of relationships she might have, jobs she might work, the marriage she might regret and yet feel unable to escape.

Here's what I heard her telling her daughter, "Don't express your feelings. Don't assert yourself. Don't stand up for your needs. Follow along, be quiet, and I won't yell at you. I probably won't do anything all that nice to you either, but at least you won't have to endure my wrath."

I realize my mind tends to go to the extremes when I'm extrapolating. The hypothetical future can be very black and white, even when the real world is full of grey areas. But, how we talk to our daughters, how we treat our children, the patterns we set for future relationships by how we interact with our kids, is not a grey area for me.

Children need to know that it is o.k. for them to say "No!"

The reality is that most parents don't like it when their kids say "no" because when their child speaks up it may be inconvenient. Children's needs, wants, and desires, can quickly derail even the most carefully laid plans of adults. But that doesn't mean that kids should be forbidden from asserting themselves, it means the adults in their lives need to practice being flexible and remember the value in doing things with their children, not to them.

As your children get older if what they've heard from the time they were tiny is be quiet, don't be a bother, don't voice your feelings, and be good, chances are they aren't going to be telling you a whole lot about what's going on in their lives. They won't bother telling you about the boy they like, the book they just read, or the teacher who humiliated them in front of their English class when they didn't understand the directions.

As your children venture into the world saying no is an important skill. "No, I won't drink that cough syrup."  "No, I'm not getting into that car because the driver has been drinking."  "No, it's not o.k. for you to kiss me."  "No, I'm not going to have sex with you until we have condoms."

As frustrating as it may be when your three year old tells you "No!" remind yourself that some day that same word may save your child's life. Please, don't tell you child they can't say "No!" Instead, when your child doesn't want to do what you want them to do consider why. Talk to them. Validate their feelings, don't discount their experience, or take away their ability to express themselves.

And if your child seems to always say "No!" remember that small children often feel like they don't have any control over their lives. They feel this way because it's true. Most children are told what and when to eat, when to sleep, when to get up, when to be loud, when to walk and when to run. As often as you can give your child the opportunity to feel powerful, to have choices, to feel more in control of their lives.

If your toddler seems to only say "No!" consider that they may not have the words to fully express the thoughts and feelings behind the word. Help them explore those thoughts and feelings, to learn how to express them in a way that will support them in getting their needs met. Maybe they don't want to put on their jacket because the tag is itchy or last time they put it on the zipper pinched them, or putting on their jacket means leaving the house and they'd really rather stay home and build a tower with their blocks. Help them expand on that "No!" Decipher what they are trying to say and act on that, instead of reacting to the word "No!"

When children regularly hear this message from the adults in their lives, "Don't express your feelings. Don't assert yourself. Don't stand up for your needs. Follow along, be quiet, and I won't yell at you. I probably won't do anything all that nice to you either, but at least you won't have to endure my wrath," it sets them up to accept the same treatment from their peers, their employers, their boyfriends or girlfriends. Or it sets them up to say those words to other people in the future once they are bigger and in a position of authority. As I discussed in Bullying Begins at Home.

As parents we also need to guard against saying "No" to our children for arbitrary reasons. I talk more about this over at With The Family, in my post Arbitrary Parenting.

"Parenting with integrity and respect requires us to involve our children in the conversation. We must be honest and we must not be arbitrary. If we say "no" then we need a real, fact based reason why. If we can get to the teen years with our parental integrity intact, with our children knowing that we are willing to help them explore the options and answers, that we are not trying to control or manipulate their behavior to make our life easier, and we are truly supportive of the person they are, our relationship with them will reflect this."

Sunday, January 26, 2014

What Is Wrong With Kids These Days?

Sometimes adults say really horrible things about kids. I wrote about this in a blog post on With The Family two and a half years ago in my post Hate Speech Is Not Acceptable. And adults find all manner of things upon which to blame the supposedly horrible behavior of kids and teens.

Recently I ran across this comment on a friend's wall:

 "Technology is making this generation of children SUPER BRATS!" 

Ironically, this statement was posted on a status update that was lamenting the frustrations of working with adults, not kids. This juxtaposition caused me to think about some of the other possible reasons for the potentially troubling behavior of kids and teens. My thoughts wandered around until they arrived at the possibility that the problem with kids is the adults in their lives. That thought didn't pop up out of the blue. My kids have previously had some experiences with adults that have caused me to consider how adults influence the behavior of children.

One of my kids suffers from anxiety and occasionally has panic attacks. Since she is a teenager, and out and about in the world, I am not always around when it happens. She has friends who have been very understanding and who have supported her through panic attacks.

Some of the adults she interacts with have not been as kind. An adult I don't know once told my daughter she was no longer allowed to have anxiety in the building where she takes classes. The adult went on to say that she thought my daughter was having anxiety attacks to get attention and it was a distraction for the other kids.

A few days previously a fellow student's mother told her that if my daughter said she was having a panic attack, or struggling with her anxiety, this girl should say she was busy or ignore my daughter.

Several parents, it seems, had been discussing my daughter and decided that her behavior needed to be dealt with. These parents did not talked with me, they did not expressed any concern over my daughter's struggles with anxiety, they never bothered to find out the facts. Instead, they took it upon themselves to undermine her friendships, discourage other teens from offering her support or comfort, and went so far as to cancel planned outings so their children wouldn't be with mine. One of them went onto her kids' facebook accounts and blocked and unfriended my kid, as well as blocking her number on their phones.

All this because my child struggles with anxiety and instead of taking the time to understand the issue, instead of seeing that anxiety is a problem for her, the adults decided she was the problem.

After that experience I got to thinking about kids, particularly teens. Those much maligned members of society who are theoretically thoughtless and bratty. Those teens who had been supportive, compassionate, and kind to my daughter.

I mean really, what is wrong with kids these days?  And I came to the conclusion that what is wrong with kids these days is the adults in their lives.

Most adults don't take the time do find out what is going on in the lives of the children they know.  Adults fail to develop meaningful relationships with teens, the up and coming members of their community who will soon be working, voting, and paying taxes. When parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, and any members of society who regularly come into contact with children and teens, fail to invest their time, energy, talents, and knowledge in the lives of these young people the whole community loses out. When adults fail to interact with children and teens in a compassionate, kind, thoughtful, and respectful manner they shouldn't be all that surprised when children and teens fail to exhibit those very behaviors.

Granted, many adults didn't have those behaviors modeled for them when they were kids. And when adults were bullied when they were growing up perhaps we shouldn't be surprised when they start to bully the children in their lives, having the advantage of size and power. I touched on this reality in my post Bulling Begins at Home.

But we adults need to do the work to overcome our own issues so that we can express compassion toward children. In order to give more time and energy to the children in our lives and communities we need to step away from our computers, put down our cell phones, and stop focusing on ourselves quite so much. We need to be there for the kids in our lives, supporting them in following their dreams, listening to them and really hearing what they have to say, loving them for who they are, and modeling positive ways to interact with other people.

The next time you start to say something negative about a kid or teen, or kids and teens in general, stop for a moment and think: What do you gain by being negative? Where are your feelings really coming from? What is the root of the behavior you are finding so deplorable? The behavior of kids doesn't happen in a vacuum, it happens for a reason. Generally that reason is in some way connected to adults.

Friday, January 17, 2014

What Girls Should Wear

It's happened! I'm now the mother of three teenage girls. There's a secret that most of our society doesn't seem to know: having teenagers in the house can be awesome! One of the amazing things my girls have done is to help me understand topics that are important to them, while being patient with me when my "Aha!" moments are slow to come. From the time they were babies my daughters have been helping me understand that the way they dress is part of their exploration of who they are, a form of self-expression, and an integral part of how they interact with the world.

It was my daughters who introduced me to the issue of slut shaming, and opened my eyes to the double standards our society accepts without thinking when it comes to the messages for boys vs. the messages for girls. "Boys will be boys," but girls need to understand that one mistake can ruin their whole life. Boys can wear shorts and no shirt, but girls need to cover up, if boys who play football rape a girl who is drunk it's her fault - WHAT?!?!

My girls have helped me understand that the parents of boys need to be talking to their sons about the importance of consent, just as the parents of girls need to talk to their daughters about the importance of consent. And my girls have helped me see that freaking out about the dangers of the world and things that might happen is not helpful - it doesn't protect them or help them protect themselves. What does help? Talking about issues, looking at the facts, staying rational, and keeping the communication lines open. But equally as important is supporting my girls in becoming women who have a strong sense of self, and feelings of confidence and competence as they make their way through the world.

The way that clothing relate to my daughters' sense of self has been on my mind after a conversation with a parent who was concerned that my daughters don't dress modestly. And again, because of a visit with extended family. My oldest daughter and I talked about her clothing choices before that visit, as in she was checking in with me to ask my opinion and to make sure we were on the same page, not as in I was lecturing her on what she "should" wear.

In my conversation with another parent, that parent said, "I really like how you ultimately respect your children to make the right choices about their bodies, and I think that this is generally a good idea, however, I feel that children need guidance, especially about when they get older. For example, clothes for girls usually has more potential for being what I consider "inappropriate," and in general I think that parents need to set the standard for their children and give guidance and explain the reasons why something isn't approved of by the parents (telling a child the "image" that a certain item of clothing gives to other people, and how that image guides people to treat us and think of us)."

Here's the thing, my daughters get to make Choices About Their Bodies, and that means those are their bodies about which they get to make their own choices. I do not expect my daughters to make the "right choices about their bodies," which generally implies that there is right choice and a wrong choice. When it comes to bodies there is personal choice. My girls get to make their own choices and I don't get to judge the rightness or wrongness of them, I get to support them in making their own choices.

Now before someone takes that paragraph out of context, let me remind you of the previous paragraph where I said, " What does help? Talking about issues, looking at the facts, staying rational, and keeping the communication lines open. But equally as important is supporting my girls in becoming women who have a strong sense of self, and feelings of confidence and competence as they make their way through the world." My girls make their own decisions, but not in a vacuum; but also without guilt trips, drawn out sighs of disapproval, or other subtle forms of coercion.

In our house children may be guided when they are young, but that generally means guiding them in looking both ways before they cross the street, and guiding them to the bathroom when they need to go potty. By the time the "get older" they should know how to look both ways before they cross the street, use the bathroom, and choose their own clothing. Because they have been choosing their own clothing since they were old enough to express their preferences, at my house that was at least by the age of 18 months.

As for the clothes of girls having the potential to be "inappropriate," let me remind you that clothing is optional. The reason we began wearing clothes was to protect our sensitive parts from things that might hurt us, and then as we moved around on the planet it was to keep us warm. From the start, clothing has been a way of decorating our body. What those decorative adornments look like varies widely across the planet, what one culture might consider modest another culture might find scandalous, because what we consider appropriate is a social construct.

As for what other people think, my daughters are not, hold on - I feel the need for emphasis, MY DAUGHTERS ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK.  And no matter what my daughters are wearing, they should be treated kindly.

I do not get to decide what clothes are inappropriate for my kids, and I don't get to decide what clothes give the "wrong image" because that would mean that I had decided that there was a right image, that there was a way my kids had to present themselves in the world, and that decision is not mine to make.

Slut shaming is a concept that I struggled to grasp. The idea that girls should dress certain ways so as to avoid unwanted attention, or that how men responded to women who were dressed a certain way was the responsibility of the woman because of the clothes she was wearing, was deeply ingrained in my grey matter. The belief that girls who dress certain ways were at greater risk for assault or rape was also very clear in my mind.

Now I know better. How a man responds to a woman is the man's responsibility. Even if a woman is walking down the street naked that doesn't mean men have the right to make lewd comments, touch her, or rape her. It does mean that someone might offer her a coat if it's cold outside. If a girl is drunk or high it does not mean she's fair game for any guy who happens by, it does mean that someone should make sure she's in a safe place or has a ride with a sober driver to a safe place. How a person is dressed does not change the fact that they are a person and we should be treating them respectfully and with kindness.



Trigger warning: I'm going to talk about rape statistics, including those that involve children.


I looked up statistics on rape, it wasn't pleasant, but I wanted to know the truth.
Here's what I found:

clothing is not a significant factor in increasing someone's chances of being raped.

People of all ages, genders, and sexual orientation are raped.

Women are most likely to be raped in their home, by someone they know.

Children are most likely to be raped by a parent, including a biological parent. (Yes, that's horrifying.)

Less than 10% of all rapes are perpetrated by strangers.

Rape is an act of violence, relating to control and domination, it is not sexual or about gratification.



Resources:

 Rape Myths and Facts 

The point of clothes, from Dances with Fat

Costumes and beauty: Dear Fat Nutritionist - You're Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl) 

See the Raising Allies Resources Page for more information.