Modesty and Sexual Harassment — Prevention vs. Victim Blaming

There is a broken record that plays at our house, where both my young boys grab toys and hit and then blame the other brother for “starting it”: You are responsible for YOU.  I don’t really care who started it. I care about my children learning to keep their hands to themselves and to respect other children’s persons and property, regardless of what happens to them. Parents, I’m sure you understand. This concept is not new.

Why, then, does this concept go out the window when it comes to modesty and sexual harassment; prevention of sexual assault and blaming the victim? When stories like this one show up, there is a great teaching opportunity for parents of both boys and girls. In this instance, I learn about a 15-year-old girl (whose photo, scraped from her Facebook page for the article, reveals a broad, generous smile, among other things) complained to an airline about being groped by a fellow passenger. She could provide insufficient evidence, no actual charges were brought, but the airline evidently responded in a letter: “The flight attendants and passengers also stated that you and your daughter were allowed to move to other seats several times, that Chelsea repeatedly moved in and out of her seat, crawling over the other customer who was attempting to sleep, and that your daughter wore extremely short shorts.”

I can see two equally likely scenarios that could have played out, and likely the truth, which we won’t ever know, is a mixture of the two. I can see a bubbly, well-endowed teenager in revealing clothing unable to sit still on the long flight, moving in and out, bumping against a passenger whose proximity is uncomfortable for her (who finds the proximity of fellow passengers on planes comfortable?) attempting to get a better seat by complaining to the airline. I can also envision a man capturing the opportunity afforded to him by the movements of his young, attractive seat mate, knowing it is difficult if not impossible for women to ever prove sexual harassment occurred. But really, the truth doesn’t matter to me, because I am not sitting in judgment of either individual (for which I am thankful) — what I care about as a parent is what I need to teach my children. You are responsible for YOU. 

If you are sitting next to someone young, vulnerable, attractive, and no one is watching what you are doing: show deference, avoid looking at anything that would normally be covered up, and keep your hands to yourself. If you are young and attractive (or old and attractive, or female) dress and behave in a way that discourages or redirects sexual advances — not in short shorts. (Hmmm, I think that is the sound of the comment box filling with criticism and dissent.)

Hear me out: what I teach you, o daughters of mine, is not what I wish you had to know, but what I know you need to know. Is it fair that black mothers have to teach their black sons how to behave so that police don’t shoot them? No. But they do, because their sons need to know it. In the same way, women today need to know how to deflect negative sexual attention, and we all know that short shorts is not the way to do that. Can we please just acknowledge that modesty is a form of protection and prevention, without being accused of suggesting that an immodest woman is “asking for it”?

If you are reading this blog, you probably have teen-aged children. Whether they are boys or girls, please share a word with them about how to dress in the heat without risking their personal dignity, as well as how to interact with others in a world that does not live up to their high standards of what “should” or “shouldn’t” be okay in the clothing department.

Let this teen inspire you!

Thanks to the Huffington Post for bringing this story to my attention. The above photo was shared on Facebook by Eric Gaines with the following caption:

“I watched as this young kid was walking pass, stopped and walked over to this sleeping homeless man; touched him and began praying over him… This was an amazing sight! I pray this kid becomes a leader amongst his peers, and continues on this path!! Not all Baltimore youth are lost!!” (sic)

What a beautiful act of compassion!

Yet as I move beyond being thankful for this reminder of the good in young people, I reflect on what this photo prompts in me as a mother. As a parent, I have many kinds of desires for my children. Of course, I would love for my son to be the kind of young man who would quietly, humbly care about a stranger. But if I am honest, I would also love it if my son were smart, talented, well-mannered and known for such qualities. The question is, which desire is stronger? You see, I find it hard not to live through my children, and very hard not to puff up my own reputation through their accomplishments. So which do I want more? A child who would stop on his own, alone, to notice and care for another person who may never notice him back; or a child who wins grades, awards, and a great reputation?

Why do I have to choose? Because I expect that the humble goodness this teen demonstrated is snuffed out in families that prioritize recognition; and when grades or talents are prioritized, the pressure to perform leaves little time or energy for selflessness. If I only praise what brings my child (and by extension myself) positive attention from others, it is very unlikely that my child will one day act like the young man in the photo. In addition, my child will do what I do (most likely) — do I model the same kind of compassion as the young man? If this story inspires me to believe that some teens are really doing okay, it should also inspire me to look at myself and my parenting. Am I nurturing selfless compassion in my children by modeling it, noticing it in others, and reminding my child that I care more about how they treat others than how they perform? Or am I just another performance driven parent feeding off the recognition and accomplishments of my children.

And if it were my teen in the photo, would I allow it to remain anonymous? Or would I have to share it with all my friends? What would you do?

The biggest fibbers are…adolescents

Anyone with a teen or two has probably already had that shocking realization…”He’s lying to my face!”  We KNOW we taught our kids how important it is to tell the truth, and we know that they used to be so innocent!  Not anymore.  And it’s devastating.

A study of 1,000 people age 6-77 (published in Acta Psychologica) revealed that the most honest people are the very young, and the aged.  Teens, on the other hand, are the biggest liars, with 75% admitting to lying, with an average of 3 lies a day, while those 60 and older lie less when they do lie, and 55% tell NO lies.

What does this mean for parents?  When your teen vigorously denies lying, and passionately exclaims, “Don’t you believe me?”… don’t feel too guilty for being suspicious.  And a wise parent will check the facts if there’s a history of suspicious “stories” or an unlikely claim.  It might be worth calling Sarah’s mom to see if your little angel REALLY went to the mall, or if they were at that party she begged you to be allowed to go to but you said “No” because you knew there wouldn’t be adults there.

And be prepared for the consequences.  I’ve been through the teen years with my now grown daughters and I can testify that once trust is broken, it can take YEARS to regain.  It’s important to treat lying seriously (apart from punishment or removing privileges), by discussing the effect lying has on relationships.  I once asked my child WHY she lied, and the answer was “It’s easier.”  I retorted that it might seem that way if you want get away with something, but because of lost trust and lost privileges, life was going to be a LOT more difficult for her for a while.  She’s not a teen anymore, and guess what?  She DID grow in this area as she aged…or perhaps she just learned the hard way that it doesn’t pay.

How a Bad Apple can change a School

Rotten Apple

Most of the stats that we include on our site, in our blogs, or in our classroom instruction refer to the general population of the US. While they are generally accurate, and I can confidently say they reflect many if not most situations, there are always exceptions. We teach at over 35 schools whose health classes vary in size from 5 (yes, 5) to 90. In almost a decade of experience, I have seen a school’s cultural attitudes about sex shift in both positive and negative ways. My experience has taught me a lot about the power of one Bad Apple.

In any given school climate, regardless of how hard teachers, parents, and administrators have worked to instill good values in their students, you occasionally run across a cluster of kids making poor decisions at a disproportionately greater rate. This can happen in both public and private schools, though ironically I find the power of a Bad Apple is more potent in the private schools, simply because they are smaller. It might look like this: at a middle school that almost always has “good” kids, where hardly anyone has actually had sex, suddenly a class comes along that misbehaves more in 6th grade, rebels more when they get to 7th grade, and by 8th grade, the principal is dealing with cases of oral chlamydia.

I don’t have time or space to dissect the sociology behind the phenomenon, but I do want to discuss what parents should consider and how they can help inoculate their child against it. First, I should say that there isn’t always just one “Bad Apple.” I use the term to refer to how an attitude or idea can slowly seep into a population and turn an otherwise positive culture into an unhealthy one. It might start with one person, but one could rarely actually pinpoint that person. So be slow to point fingers.

Parents do need to recognize, however, that the power of a bad apple makes it impossible to completely shield their child from negative influences. For example, I had a friend whose parents sent her to a Christian school, hoping for the environment to shield her from the worst of popular culture. In hindsight, however, she had a harder time making good choices than a similar friend at a public school. In the small, private school, a few bad apples had introduce and normalized oral sex among the students. My friend had been taught to follow the Christian culture of her school, so when oral sex was normalized among her supposedly Christian peers, she felt like it was okay to go along with it. In contrast, my friend at the public school had been taught not to go along with the crowd and to expect to stand out (she was also from a strong Christian family), so when her friends started engaging in oral sex, she figured it was another thing to avoid rather than follow.

The difference between the two is that my friend in the private school had not been taught to recognize and steer clear of the influence of a bad apple. When parents ignore the possibility that an otherwise positive, healthy culture can suddenly become hijacked by a bad apple, they can fail to teach their child to make good decisions despite an unhealthy culture.

What can you do? Talk to your teenager about how the poor decisions of others can influence their thinking, normalizing unhealthy behavior. Here is an example of a small high school of about 300 that suddenly faced 20 cases of Chlamydia. My guess is that a bad apple influenced the school’s cultural attitudes about sex, resulting in high rates of risky behavior. Would your teen know what to do if 20 of their friends were making unhealthy decisions? How would they respond?

Giving Tuesday and teaching generosity

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For the third year in a row, non-profits, charities and community service organizations have encouraged families and individuals to participate in Giving Tuesday — the day after Black Friday and Cyber Monday. This is a great opportunity to encourage generosity in our kids!

What Success Looks Like

I have several nephews and a niece in elementary school right now. It is such a privilege to watch them grow up and to see the world through their eyes. Nothing beats watching a child “get it,” whether that’s learning to read or learning to share. Not too long ago, my brother-in-law told me a story about my nephew, who was then around 5 or 6. Their family has worked hard to raise their children to be aware of the needs of others and to act generously. Still, as I am sure all parents know, children seem to have an inherent self-centeredness. So it still brings me to tears when I think about my young nephew spontaneously coming to the conclusion and telling his dad, “I have a lot of toys. Those other kids don’t. Can we box up some of these toys and give them to the other kids?”

Webinar of Ideas

I hope there are many more parents out there working to instill the value of generosity in their children. If you want some ideas, I learned about this webinar coming up on November 24. Consider participating and getting some ideas for your own family to encourage giving this holiday season. I know I plan to participate and I look forward to helping my own kids learn to share!

Parenting in a Material World

Cover for the book Material World
Material World is the work of several photographers to capture the contrasts between families around the globe.

After the last blog, I started thinking about how parenting in America today means parenting amidst an onslaught of materialism. Not only do we fight our own temptations (I have to own a house that looks just so), we have the task of teaching children to become aware of something that they have been swimming in since birth. How do you teach a fish to be aware of water?

I certainly don’t have all the answers. In fact, as a parent myself, I’m often hoping that the things I try will work at least a little bit. But I read, I research, I look for what works for others and I think about what has worked for me. Here are a few of my ways to try to combat the materialism around us:

  • Manage the amount of advertising coming into the house. One option is to reduce junk mail, catalogues, credit card offers, and other ads being mailed to you. The Federal Trade Commission highlights three websites that can help you do just that.
  • Encourage generosity. Make it a point to model generosity, whether that’s donating a bit to the Salvation Army bell-ringers at Christmas, or working with your children to pick a charity and sending them a donation.
  • Educate your family about social causes. Pick one or two books or other resources to use as a family. Some of my favorites are Everyday Justice and Material World: A Global Family Portrait.
  • Reduce overall media consumption. While I love being entertained as much as the next family, it is undeniable that almost all forms of media come with strings attached. Try an experiment with your family to replace some of your entertainment time with a creative or recreational hobby – a sport, craft, board or card game.
  • Teach financial literacy. There are a host of resources online that can be used to educate kids about better ways to use their money. Investopedia has a series for kids, tweens and teens. Here is a link to a nice lesson for kids on the difference between needs and wants. And for adults, I strongly recommend this book that has a little something for everyone. Understanding how to use money as a tool may help a family avoid being driven by the need for more and more stuff.

What works for you? Especially as we approach the holidays, how do you parent in a material world?

Family Ups and Downs

I often receive questions from parents about how to communicate less than perfect personal and family histories to teens. As we’ve been talking about sharing family narratives with children, many parents out there are probably thinking of a few stories they’d rather not tell. There may even be whole sides of the family that you don’t want to encourage your teen to spend time with due to the potential for bad influences. This week, we’ll examine ways to talk about the family ups and downs.

The same research that looked at the importance of teens knowing a lot about their families also looked at the types of stories told. There were the positive family narratives, of how the family just keeps getting better. The negative stories of how a family lost everything. And then, there are the oscillating narratives, which are the healthiest, according to the researchers:

“‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”

When a teen sees himself as part of something bigger, he can take on the experiences of previous generations as his own. When that bigger picture includes good times and bad, a teen can develop a sense of being able to overcome – to ride the ups and downs in her own life just like the generations have been riding the ups and downs of the family. That healthy sense of being able to navigate both successes and failures without being defined by either one can build confidence and resilience.

The upshot is, less than perfect families still benefit from sharing their stories and building a family identity. Yes, it is important to look for positive stories – or at least a positive spin on some of the stories that are harder to tell. But it isn’t actually helpful to pretend like the hard times didn’t exist. Sharing the lessons learned from a job loss, a divorce, or a family member’s drug addiction can be invaluable for a teen.

That being said, sharing the negative stories can require some finesse. Here is a helpful blog with 5 suggestions for successfully sharing past mistakes with kids. In cases of family members who provide a bad influence, it may help to find ways to incorporate those family members’ stories into the bigger narrative without necessarily encouraging your child to spend time with them or see them as a role model.

Furthermore, it is occasionally necessary for a parent to experience emotional healing or closure before he or she is able to share pieces of family history in a healthy way. This relates closely with #1 from the above link. If a parent has never processed the pain of a past mistake or past wrong with an adult, it is unlikely that they are ready to discuss it with their children. In the case of larger issues (abuse, divorce, a past abortion) it may even be necessary to seek professional counseling or a support group before sharing with your children.

Are the Duggars Crazy or Brilliant?

Ben Seewald, Jessa Duggar, Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar, Jill Duggar and Derick Dillard
Discovery / Jim Bob Duggar, from NBCnews.com

At a workshop for parents of middle schoolers last week, I got a question about the Duggar family’s rules on dating. The Duggars, I was told, don’t allow kissing or even hand-holding in their daughters’ relationships. (I went home and looked up the story, which you can read here.)

The parent asked, “Is that extreme, or do you really think there is a method to what they’re doing?”

Certainly, compared to the vast majority of today’s dating couples, the rules sound extreme. But to be fair to the Duggars, I thought I would share a little bit about the science that might make their methods make sense.

Physical touch is a powerful component in any relationship. Studies of infants who grow up with little or no physical affection have shown us that touch is even more complex and powerful than we could have imagined, affecting everything from the ability to heal cuts and bruises to the development of social and emotional skills. Touch has the power to evoke sexual arousal, to increase feelings of trust and attachment, and to solidify more positive memories with a person. All of these things should cause us to think carefully about who we touch, how and when.

Dr. John Van Epp, author of How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk, developed a helpful diagram for understanding how to build a healthy relationship. His main idea (which we teach in all of our classes) is to get to know someone first, before you start to trust them. Trust someone before you rely on them. Test that person’s reliability before you commit to them. And make sure your level of physical intimacy is lower than your level of commitment. In the Duggar family, saving a first kiss for marriage means the level of physical touch will be much lower than their level of commitment, until the end of the marriage vows. Does that make them crazy, or brilliant?

As parents, we would do well to help our children understand the power of physical touch. Talk with your child before he or she starts dating about setting physical boundaries and why those boundaries matter. For example, how long should a couple wait to hold hands? Is it appropriate to lay in bed together watching a movie on the second date? What about on the tenth date? Should a couple ever kiss on a first date?

What are your guidelines for dating and physical intimacy?

Popular Speaker on Teen Issues Coming to DuPage

In the decade plus that Amplify has been speaking to teens, the sexualization of teens, especially girls, has been escalating at an alarming rate.  So Sexy So Soon author, Jean Kilbourne, has been named by The New York Times Magazine as one of the three most popular speakers on college campuses.  And now, parents have an opportunity to hear her speak in DuPage County next month. She will be at Glenbard West on April 15 for a free presentation (information HERE).  Her topic will be “Deadly Persuasion: The Impact of Media on our Sons and Daughters.”  She is also speaking ($10) at Herrick Middle School in Downers Grove at 7 p.m. April 16, where she will be focusing on “How Being So Sexy, So Soon Can Impact our Girls.”  Register for that presentation HERE.