After the flurry of #MeToo’s had died down in my social media feed, it was not fears for my daughter which kept me awake that night. Not because I know she won’t be violated at some point in her life. She will, unless she’s exceedingly lucky, because living in our abusive culture means it is practically inevitable. My job is to love and educate her as hard as I can, which also means explaining to her that she is not responsible for someone else’s actions, only her own. My job is to teach her how to state and respect boundaries–hers and others–by demonstrating respect for hers and respecting and stating my own. My job is to be there to pick up the pieces when it all goes to shit. As a woman born in the 70s when there was little awareness, I’ve learned these things the hard way and I hope I can make it a little easier for her. Yet whilst these things create great sadness inside me, I do not fear them because I have already faced them and I have tools to deal with them. My fears concern my son.
Whilst I support all individuals regardless of gender who have been violated–the brutal facts are that it is one in three women–who have experienced sexual aggression or violation. To tell you the truth, I don’t personally know any of the lucky two. And if predatory behaviour is as ubiquitous among men as it appears and as I have experienced it to be, statistically it is likely that my son will violate someone, at some point, in his lifetime. That could be anything from ignorant boundary violation to, god forbid, rape.
As we teach our daughter, we also teach our son in matters of boundaries and consent … but these are grey concepts in a young child’s mind,which still makes sense of the world in black and white. He is five years old and as young as that is, I already see red flags. His desperate attempts to prove himself right when he is blatantly and undeniably wrong. His unwillingness to admit any responsibility. His retreat into victimhood when I confront him about lying, even though as a family, we make it our primary goal to reward and welcome honesty. Sometimes that means rewarding his admission that he’s secretly eaten all the candies, but we look at this as a short term sacrifice for a long term goal.
“But he’s only little!”
Yes. Yes, he is. But those same behaviours are not present in my daughter who is two years older and more importantly she did not demonstrate them at the same age. Which makes me wonder why.
We tell them both that making mistakes is an important part of being human because without mistakes, we cannot learn and we cannot grow. Over and over, their father and I admit in front of them when we make mistakes, we show love to one another as we express what we have learned. My daughter listens and demonstrates–sometimes far too willingly–a readiness to say when she has made a mistake. My son, listens but is silent, content it seems in the knowledge that others make mistakes, but that he does not.
When I consult other mothers with these fears of mine, they reassure me that I am a good mother, that there is plenty of time to teach my son to responsibly govern his power. After all ‘he’s only little!’
But I’m not looking for good mother validation, I couldn’t care less. I’m searching for the means to spark the thirst for learning in my son, enough that it surpasses his desire to be right. If he wants to learn badly enough, I believe, he is more likely to accept that mistakes are one of the primary ways to do it. So I go through the filing cabinets in my mind to review everything I did for my daughter, whose delightful curiosity grows day after day. Did I do anything for her that I could apply to him too? The search is fruitless. It happened with her it seems, without any conscious effort on my part.
Then I examine his school environment where to my dismay, he has learned that to fit in with his peers, he should be more interested in football than exercising his mind. Football is great, but it’s not likely to bring awareness around matters of consent. And even though Ashton Kutcher claimed once at the teen choice awards that “the sexiest thing in the world is being smart,” the my son’s reality doesn’t agree. Admiration, for my son is earned by being cool. Football is cool, learning the alphabet isn’t.
But at the end of my examination, I unearth one aspect which may hold a key to changing his attitudes. It resides in his fear of failure.
My second born child feels he can never be first, he can never win, because his logic and reasoning are those of a five year old, as are his language skills. He often feels second best and no matter how much space and voice we try to give him, his verbose seven year old sister tends to dominate the conversation which means he often prefers to not even try, than to try and fail. Fear of failure may be part of what prevents him from desiring to learn. Fear of failure also is likely to lead to dissatisfaction, resentment and anger against the world. And when he grows up to be an adult that fear of failure might have far more harmful consequences.
Thus we’ve employed all sorts of tactics from the ‘I like how you’re thinking’ encouragement regardless of the answer, to the framing of learning in terms of puzzles instead of the more binary right-and-wrong answers. We give our children age appropriate and different learning stimuli so that there is a less obvious comparison between their achievements. We support progress against their past achievements rather than against one another. But it’s hard work, painful work because often we find that we are working against how they are educated all day and every day at school. We are working against how the media portrays success. We are fighting the narrative of our world and it’s exhausting because competition and one-upmanship is how our fucking system works.
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The world rewards those who have power, with more power. Money. Privilege. Prestige. It’s a David and Goliath fight to bring up my son in a way where he rejects the popularity and power–more easily accessible to him if he never admits he’s wrong–in favour of the choice to humbly acknowledge his mistakes and learn from them when all that means for him is rejection.
These are the lessons we learn when we are young. These are the lessons which form our neural pathways and therefore which we believe assure our survival. Being right is, our mind says, the way to survive. Be right or die. What I need to do is to cultivate my son’s tolerance for failure and for being wrong.
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Which means I need to celebrate his failures just as much–if not more–than his successes.
It goes against my instincts, my upbringing and my society; yet ironically, this is the thing which leads me to believe that am on the right path. Because I don’t want the same abusive society for my children that I’ve had to endure myself.
I will go to extraordinary lengths to prevent them being raped.
Which means I must pay just as much attention–if not more–to how I can prevent them becoming rapists.
[Featured Image: A photo of a child. The photo shows one eye, a nose and a mouth and one ear. They have blond hair and dark grey eyes. Source: roberto volterra]