In the news, we’ve recently been bombarded with outrageous examples of male dominance, sexual control and coercion, and the objectification of women in very public forums. For example, a fraternity was recently suspended in Virginia after hanging a sign off their front porch that read, “Hope your baby girl is ready for a good time.”
On Facebook, an accused rapist wrote, “women are not people god just put them here for mans entertainment [sic].”
Rape Culture is a term coined to explain the very public and often pervasive attitudes in society that highlight coercion and control as central to a culture where sexual objectification exists. And while many parents discuss with older children and teens how to improve their safety in this culture, families are often silent about these issues during the early stages of childhood development. Yet it is during this crucial period that parents can give children the most effective tools to recognize these high risk attitudes in society.
By incorporating the following lessons into daily life, parents can empower their children to understand and regulate their emotions, responses, and reactions, and can teach their children to appreciate these same feelings in others.
1. Teach children that all emotions are important and should be respected. Children must be allowed to cry, to sulk, and to be disappointed. When we rescue children rapidly (with promises of candy or another present), we rob them of the opportunity to learn how to accept these feelings. By doing so, we also demonstrate that we, as the parents, are uncomfortable with our natural range of emotions.
2. When you say no, mean it and don’t backtrack. It’s well documented that inconsistent parenting can exacerbate a child’s behavior problems, but it also means the child does not develop the self-soothing skills needed to accept disappointment. In that same vein, allow your child to occasionally say no, and in those instances, allow your child to stand firm. When a younger child wants to play a game with her sister and the sister wants to play alone, it is tempting to require the older child to share with her younger sibling. But by doing so consistently, this teaches the older child that she needs to change her mind and ignore her own needs as she instead focuses on pleasing someone else. This also misses an opportunity to teach the younger child how to cope when things don’t go her way.
3. Allow children to backtrack. And when you backtrack (as parents inevitably will do), use it as a learning opportunity to teach children that we all have the right to change our minds. It may sound counter-intuitive, but think about it. Imagine packing everything up in the car, finally paying and getting into the ice skating rink, lacing up the skates, and hearing your child say “I don’t want to skate.” Our initial thought would probably be to feel exasperated. We might reasonably think, “I took all this time to get us here. You begged to come here! I paid for your skates. Last time you enjoyed it.” But 10 years from now, as parents, we hope that our daughter’s date respects her feelings if she changes her mind about sexual activity. If your child changes his or her mind about something, respect your child’s instincts and encourage your child to talk about these thoughts and feelings. In the end, your instruction as the parent must prevail, but use these scenarios as opportunities to foster your child’s intuition and to teach your child how to appropriately be heard and respected.
4. Recognize sexual objectification. Do not engage in body shaming. Learn to recognize instances when advertising makes a woman’s (or man’s) body into an object. Discuss this reality with your children and encourage them to think about people’s thoughts and feelings when they see images in the media and other outlets.
There is no way to inoculate our children from becoming victims or perpetrators of rape. But parents can help their children recognize and avoid the erroneous and harmful attitudes surrounding sex, power, control, and coercion. Teach children to respect their bodies, instincts, and emotions. At the same time, give them tools to recognize and respect the same thing in others. Perhaps by doing so, we can shift the dialog and begin to create a culture that fosters healthy boundaries and ends all forms sexual violence.
Jennifer Sager, Ph.D. is a psychologist. She often testifies as an expert witness in the field of sex abuse, trauma, and treatment. Sager is a private practitioner in Gainesville, Florida. Connect with her by visiting her web site.
Stacey Steinberg, J.D. is a legal skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Prior to law teaching, she worked as a prosecutor and child welfare attorney. Stacey often serves as a court appointed Guardian ad Litem in child abuse and neglect proceedings. Connect with her on Twitter @sgsteinberg and on Facebook.
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