By Allison Wedell Schumacher
It’s such an old song. If you’re a woman you can probably sing it with me: A man steps onto the escalator behind a female colleague and me. He stands uncomfortably close to me, but when we ignore him and continue our conversation, he begins to talk loudly about how ugly we are and how he wouldn’t date either of us. My heart pounds and my emotions swing between anger and fear, but I force myself to continue talking calmly to my friend until we make it safely inside our office door. Later that day, I post on Facebook about the incident using the #MeToo hashtag. The post begins, “I’m not using this example because it’s the worst. Far from it. I’m using it because it’s the most recent.”
When things like this happen to me, the skills I automatically call upon look a lot like the skills we teach children to help them deal with bullying. If I feel safe doing so, I call out the behavior. If I don’t, I get away as soon as I can. Either way, I tell someone else about it. And when my daughter and I talk about bullying or sexual harassment in general, and the #MeToo movement in particular, I help her reinforce those same skills.
One of the things the #MeToo movement aims to accomplish is to bring to light the ubiquity of sexual harassment and assault. And it has done that with shocking effectiveness. It seems like every woman and girl in the world has a #MeToo story. That made me wonder how educators in countries with dramatically different sexual assault rates talk to children about the subject.
My friend Heather has lived in Denmark for over a decade. Heather, who is American, does social work in early childhood development in preschools and elementary schools. She is also a sexual assault and harassment survivor (from both social and professional settings) and, as such, is a staunch advocate of the #MeToo movement. Actually, she put it this way: “My feeling with regard to #MeToo was, ‘FINALLY!!’” She added, “I am ecstatic that this burden borne by so many is no longer done so in silence and solitude.”
I asked her what she would say if a young child asked her about the #MeToo movement, and she brought up many of the same points we use stateside in helping young children stay safe from sexual abuse. Use the real words, not metaphors, for anatomy. Use developmentally appropriate terminology. Teach children that their bodies are their own. Keep the lines of communication open. Ideally, start at a very young age.
“This introduction at an age when children are learning to communicate with words for the first time is crucial, since it becomes a part of their natural vernacular and gives them a sense of both autonomy and an understanding of their own bodies and how to communicate properly about them,” Heather says. “Children in our care are never coerced to hug or smile or to greet and/or talk with either other parents or the school staff if they show aversion to it. Their right to say ‘no’ is indoctrinated from the start.”
This frank approach to sexuality and autonomy works, and it’s not just research that tells us so. Heather’s statements confirmed to me that if we keep the lines of communication open and unembarrassed, if we help children learn to be assertive, and children know adults will help them if children need it, we will start to hear fewer and fewer #MeToo stories—not because people will start sweeping sexual assault and harassment under the rug again, but because it won’t happen as often. “We have relatively few sexual assault cases in Denmark when compared to the United States,” says Heather. It’s entirely possible that the way they talk to children in Denmark about sexuality and autonomy is a factor.
Heather says: “I believe wholly and fully that if the subject of sexuality is handled with the same respect and neutrality as other subjects are within schools, cases of sexual assault/harassment would both be fewer and more commonly reported when they do happen. It is vital to instill a sense of educated understanding about the body, one’s boundaries, and the boundaries of others before or if these become problematic issues later in life, as it paves the way for a much improved chance of clear, open communication about relevant experiences as these children mature.”
If the children are our future, we can have a future much less burdened by sexual violence and misconduct if we teach children about these topics the right way. We owe them no less.
Allison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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