It starts early. WAY earlier than I would have imagined. Elisabeth says “No!” to an older boy who is getting too close and he doesn’t pay any attention. Granted, he’s maybe a year older so he might not understand the “No!”but Mom does. And she’s standing right there. Could part of the reason we have men who don’t get “No=No” be due to the fact that their parents didn’t teach it? After today, I’m inclined to think “Yes.”
I was sure that I was going to have a boy. I felt it. I knew it. So when I was told that Elisabeth was a girl, I was stunned in only the way that the stubborn can be when completely blindsided. My first thought: I’m not always going to be able to protect her. If I had a boy, I would teach him not to hit, rape. Teach him to get consent, to listen for a “No!”. But with a girl, that kind of education is very different. So, today when Elisabeth says “no!” to another boy getting too close, reaching for her hair/body, I have to step in. Literally. In the middle. My body was blocking hers. From him.
Mom was there. But for some reason Elisabeth’s “No!” didn’t elicit a very strong reaction from her. Perhaps Mom is someone who has never been violated or abused or known anyone who has been. Or perhaps she doesn’t know any better. Would she have acted more swiftly if her son had bit or kicked my daughter? Maybe “just” pulled her hair? I think so. (I hope so.) Clearly, a verbal “No!” wasn’t enough….until it happened a few more times and I was again right there. Then Mom started to pay attention. At one point, I explained to her that Elisabeth has had her hair pulled a few times recently. Meaning: it was scary and painful and she’s reminded of these part actions when he moves close to her. Why isn’t a verbal “No!” enough? It should be.
Let me be clear, I don’t blame the child. He seemed sweet enough. I blame Mom. She’s the person who needs to teach the difference between right and wrong. She should be the one teaching about consent and personal space. [Dad or Mom’s partner too, of course, but they weren’t present.] Parents of boys have a special responsibility to teach these issues. Boys –> men are the privileged ones in our society. They are the ones who disproportionately perpetrate violence against women. One in three women will be victims of physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime. One in seven girls will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. If these statistics don’t mean violence against women is a social epidemic I don’t know what does.
I think we need to start paying attention to and respecting the “No!”…for so many reasons but perhaps the biggest one is that kids, especially girls, should feel that their voice matters. If we teach them that their “no!” matters, then aren’t we also saying that bigger or stronger isn’t the final word on a disagreement? In the interest of a safer world for everyone, that sure sounds like a good thing. There’s more, of course: teaching respect of a “No!” would go a long way to reducing those scary violence against women statistics, blaming the victim for something that happens to her and helping people see each other as other humans, instead of objects.
We use a “No!” against girls in so many ways, so early on. Don’t be: “too” loud, “too” big, “too” smart or “too” strong. Don’t take up too much space or ask for too much or aim too high. If we respect her “No!”, might we not stop censoring other pieces of girls as well? That’d be a good thing too. I don’t now. I’m just a mom with a background in serving survivors and educating the public about intimate partner violence. But it feels to me like teaching a child to respect a “No!” can only be a good thing.