Wednesday, December 10, 2014

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Being a parent of young kids and making sense of sexual assault


Image by Sean MacEntee

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I work at a university as an academic counselor and one of my student is facing attempted rape charges. I never thought I’d be chatting with one of my students as he sat in jail, and I sat in my office.

Working with Jackson has placed sexual assault heavily on my mind, and although he may or may not be proven guilty in the end, I must say that it has made me fully realize anyone can be a sexual predator.

Sexual assault on college campuses is discussed a lot right now, and I can’t help but wonder what it means for me as a parent of two daughters (5 years and 6 months old) and one son (7 years old). A few days ago I was driving to work and listening to a story on NPR titled “Colleges Straddle Line Between Assault Prevention And Victim-Blaming,” that discussed how to warn students about staying safe, without sounding like they're blaming the victim.

A student from MIT said this:

"Telling women to not get too drunk or wear too short a skirt feels wrong. That's not a society I want to live in, where I have to look out for what I wear. I think that's a basic human right, and we don't tell men to not get blackout drunk.”

Later she said, but not warning women feels wrong, too. Her mom warned her.

The line that really stuck out to me was about her mother’s warning. As a parent, the thought of someone raping my children, at any age, is hands down one of my biggest fears. My wife and I talk about this more than I’d like. Every time I read a story about rape, I cringe. I think about my children. I wonder what I am doing to keep them safe, and what I can do to keep them safer.

But what I find the most troubling is this: When I think about my children, and their gender, and stories like the one on NPR and Jackson awaiting trial, I start to think of my children’s potential to become future victims or a future predator.

I hate these thoughts.

I have an obligation to teach my daughters how to stay safe. And on the flip side, I need to teach my son how to control his urges and how to respect women, because if I don’t, he may grow up to be someone who doesn’t respect women. I can’t help but think of how I would react if my son ever did a horrible crime like rape. I would have to backtrack through Tristan’s childhood and wonder if I went wrong somewhere in teaching him the basic core understanding of consent.

My daughters are young now, but I must say that I hate feeling like if I teach them techniques to stay safe (don’t travel at night alone, carry mace or some other form of protection), that I am teaching them that if they get raped, it’s their fault. This logic, for me as a parent, feels like being stuck between a rock and a hard place. I feel like I am walking a thin line between teaching my daughters to be safe, and victim blaming.

I hate that I live in world where I have to give rape prevention advice to my daughters, and yet, I will give it. I know I will, because I feel that it will place at least some power to prevent a tragedy in the hands of my daughters. And I plan to teach my son that non-verbal sexual cues (the length of a skirt for example) are no substitution for explicit verbal consent.

But when I think about trying to tech my kids to navigate through life safely and respectfully, I feel overwhelmed.

One evening I was chatting with my wife about this subject. Our two oldest were in bed, and in Mel’s lap was our baby, Aspen. We were both on the sofa. Both in sweatpants.  I gave her an update on Jackson, and then I told her about the story I heard on NPR.

“I don’t know exactly how to have these conversations. Will our future teens roll their eyes, like I did when I was taught them?”

Mel let out a breath. She thought for a moment. Then she said, “I assume we will have to chat with our kids about this stuff. But at the same time, our example is going to be important.” She went on, telling me that we need to show Tristan how to respect women. And we need to show Norah and Aspen how to stay safe.

As she spoke, I thought about how there are all kinds of reasons people end up doing nasty things (mental illness, influence of peers, influence of drugs/alcohol, desperation, etc.) and it's not right to blame parents for someone’s bad behavior. But at the same time, I know that I have a responsibility to raise my children to understand respect and to stay safe.

“When I think about big topics like this, it feels like I’m not qualified. I just want to throw in the towel as a parent,” I said.

“I don’t know how what’s going to happen to our kids,” Mel said. "But we can’t give up on them. I think us discussing this early on, like we are, and trying to figure out how to prevent it is a good thing. We have to keep trying, and teaching, and hoping, and praying. They are our kids. What other options do we have?”

“Yeah…” I said. “You’re right. It’s probably going to take a million lessons and safety and respect.”

That night, before bed, I kissed each one of my children as they slept. They looked sweet and innocent. I thought about their futures, and hoped for the best.

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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter


Jenn~Henn said...

Oh, Clint, I'm right there with you, only ours are a 2 year old boy, and a 10.5 month old boy. I think it is about continual dialogue, starting now, rather than a few when they are older. It involves teaching general personal boundaries, how to read body language, all sorts of stuff. I know you aren't Catholic, but a book that might help is "Beyond the Birds and the Bees" by the Popcacks.

Ashley G said...

I'm not married or a mom yet but I agree with Mel 100% that the fact that you are thinking ahead is a great sign. Even I am thinking about it myself. I am seeing it as a sign that you are an awesome parent and you are trying to handle those things now rather than "opps!". Good job Clint and Mel!