It has already begun. My child, not yet in kindergarten, now has a “me too” story. She told me last night about a boy in her class that is constantly calling her names that had to do with her butt. When I asked my daughter if she responded to the kid and told him how it made her feel, she said yes, but that he continues to do it. Cue the momma bear instincts. My child is 4 years old, nearly 5. I cannot believe that I’m having to help her through this at such a tender age. Her father and I counseled her to tell the boy that she didn’t like the way he talked to her, and to tell him that if he continues to talk to her that way, he will be ignored. That wasn’t enough for me, though. I had a talk with the kid’s teacher. The teacher assured me that it will be addressed, and that it’s not the first time this behavior from the kid has been called to her attention. The school in which our kids are enrolled has “character trait of the month” where kids learned different traits of being a good human. Apparently my daughter’s harasser missed the entire month where respect was being taught.
And before you get all “they’re just kids being kids on me,” listen. This is where it starts. At 5, we dismiss a young man’s behavior as “a kid being a kid.” When kids get older, it’s “boys will be boys.” All of this conditions these children to believe that they can say (and sometimes do) whatever they want, regardless of how it impacts others, and without consequence. That has to stop now. As parents, it is our duty to enforce respect from the beginning. We do it when a young kid tries to take a toy away; we tell them they need to wait their turn. It should be no different when a child decides to call another a name, pick on, or otherwise tormeNnt another kid. Anti-bullying campaigns are a thing now. Because for years, parents outright dismissed bullying behavior.
As a society, we’re smarter now. We know the damage that can be done by leaving bullying unchecked. The same needs to be said about sexual harassment. A 5 year old might not be able to identify or explain sexual harassment. But by turning the other cheek and dismissing the behavior, we’re enforcing the seeds that enable harassment later in life. Now I’m not arguing that every 5 year old boy that calls someone a name is going to turn out to be a habitual harasser. But if we don’t teach them now that it’s inappropriate to call someone a name, particularly when the other child has already expressed that it makes them uncomfortable, then when will they be taught? We’re now seeing the outcome of rampant sexual harassment going unchecked in our society. These harassers have been conditioned that it’s their privilege to violate someone else’s space. I’m guessing none of them woke up at twenty and decided “You know what? I’m going to start sexually harassing people today.”
It’s time we enforce the idea with our kids that everyone deserves to be treated with respect. That means if a person has told you a behavior is bothersome, it needs to stop. Even among siblings, a firm line should be set. What might seem ‘cute’ now has a chance to snowball into full on sexual harassment later. Now I’m no perfect parent. I struggle with drawing the line between sibling arguments and harassing behavior. I tend to be stricter with my children’s behavior toward kids that aren’t their family. But a near-5 year old might not be able to understand the subtle nuances between when it’s “okay” to taunt and when it’s not. I also realize my complicit enabling of this behavior with my son. He has picked up on the verbiage from his and my daughter’s classmate (my kids are twins, after all) and has said it to his sister, his father, and me. It took my daughter’s words to make me “woke.” It also forced me to recall all the times I was called names, particularly sexual in nature, by kids in my neighborhood. When I told my parents about it, guess what they said? “Oh, he must like you,” or “Oh, that’s just how boys are.” I certainly never condoned my son using the same words, but by not shutting it down, I was subtly telling him that it was ok to behave that way. This ends now. So, parents, I implore you to stay vigilant. Even words that might seem ‘cute’ now can be cutting, and behaviors that go unchecked from an early age can snowball. Let’s work together to change the narrative of sexual harassment.