Previous title: Children Learn What They Live – “Seen & Not Heard” Edition
News stories like this, where children are victims of unwanted sexual contact, make me so fucking angry. At the same time, my heart hurts so deeply for the child. I could share my ire over what I think should be done to this guy (it would not be pretty) or to the airline, but then this post is just another voice on the internet complaining or pointing blame.
Neither of those does any good; we must do something.
To understand how we got here, let’s take a look at the past. When I read the WaPo article, something about the situation seemed very familiar to me. I think it helped to pinpoint where the problem comes from. My family had a saying that I heard way too often – “Children should be seen and not heard” – this is a phrase that suggests that little boys and girls should be well-behaved and keep quiet. Often girls are socialized to be much more submissive and quiet than boys, but I know this phrase impacts boys as well. The phrase was applied to me mostly when I would run around like a loud, obnoxious little kid and someone wanted me to stop doing that. It worked eventually I guess from an exhausted and tired parent’s perspective; my spirit was “broken” and I became the first born who didn’t break any of the rules my parents set for me. When I was a young woman on my own for the first time in college, though, I could see a darker side to this Seen & Not Heard approach, and I did not want to raise a child who would stay silent in any instance when s/he would need to speak up. If you want my honest opinion, this Seen & Not Heard approach as a parenting philosophy is fucked up. Why? Because I think it is unwittingly grooming our own children for predators.
Look at the phrase in the context of the situation on the plane. The message to kids: Behave. Follow the rules. This little girl did just that. The fasten seat belt sign was lit the entire time it took the plane to taxi, take off, and reach 10,000 feet. Throughout that time, this man was groping this girl over and over. She did not get out of her seat. She “behaved.” Adults get yelled at by the flight attendants if they have their tray tables down, or their seat back reclined. We all get socialized to behave on airplanes. But NO ONE – adult or child – should experience what this creep did to this young woman. The other message to kids: Stay quiet. She did that too. She didn’t even use the call button available to her to get someone’s attention, especially handy when one is uncomfortable or feeling unsafe. Never has there been a stronger case to teach a child to say “fuck this system.” This young woman sat silently, tolerating this menacing and oppressive behavior from a grown adult. This should not be this way. Not at all.
So my food for thought to parents:
Do we stifle the natural reactions of our kids when they express discomfort? (Do we do this to ourselves?) Do we allow touch from others instead of teaching them to ask first? How can we teach our sons and daughters a proper response if, God forbid, if they find themselves in a similar situation as the article? I see opportunities for guidance in at least 2 of my 5 Building Blocks to a Healthy Sexuality: Communication & Consent.
- Encourage children to feel the physical reactions they experience in their bodies. To be fair, that requires us parents to be in our bodies too. In my coaching work, I help adults get back in touch with themselves – lots of us numb and numbing doesn’t help us to be aware parents. I know I did a pretty thorough job numbing myself with booze during my divorce. The point here is I’m sure any young person would feel uncomfortable if an unknown adult – let alone a creepy man – who would choose a middle seat on a “half empty airplane” to sit right next to them if they were traveling alone and we should encourage them to tap into that discomfort and do something with it. So what to do about that?
- Encourage children to speak out and express what they feel in their bodies. For example, in this situation, role-play saying something. When I talked with my daughters about this situation, I asked them what they would do. My oldest said, “I’d call over a flight attendant and ask for a different seat and tell them that this guy is making me feel uncomfortable. What else are they for?” She was annoyed that the flight attendants asked the perpetrator if he wanted to move to be more comfortable but no one asked the young woman if she wanted to move seats. She’s right: that was a blatant miss. Anything that encourages the child to speak out would be a step in the right direction.
- Children must learn where their boundaries are. This is a skill that follows one into adulthood. Do you know where your OWN boundaries are? You might think you have no boundaries or think you are okay with everything but would you be okay if someone tried to pick your nose? To hurt you? I’m guessing the answer is “no.” Not many adults have had an experience in a safe space to figure this stuff out. I’ve been taking some continuing education in this area and it’s fascinating to help someone express their boundaries. In the first exercise of doing this, I sat and watched others perform a role play of expressing boundaries and I swear, as I witnessed the scene, it was like they were speaking a foreign language. When it came to my turn to practice I was literally paralyzed. I did not have the language on my own. Extremely humbling when you are in a situation where you need to speak up and can’t (This also showed me how beneficial it is to teach our children to watch the body language of their friends; when they see their friend is uncomfortable to check in to see if they are doing okay).
- The next part is learning the language for how to express these boundaries. This helps them to express the discomfort and be aware of when they allow their boundaries to be crossed. It’s perfectly acceptable and advisable for children to learn this. But, it’s impossible to learn from an experiential exercise just by reading about it. Some adults may need some role play experiences of their own in order to help role play with their kids. I can refer you to a Somatica colleague who can help you locally.