Like most mothers, I imagine, reading about rapists like Brock Turner unleashes deep fears I could never have imagined before having children. What can we DO to keep our children from perpetuating rape culture?
We search for books that set good examples and have talks with them about body autonomy. I have already spent years changing sexist language in our children’s books, talking to my sons about consent (a message they hear from both parents), and mindfully ensuring that their media exposure is as un-sexist as possible. We use the real names for body parts and when they have questions we answer them unflinchingly and honestly, even when we are dying of embarrassment on the inside.
But then you have a moment where you find yourself yelling at your kid not to yell at their sibling, or roughly snatching something away from them that they just roughly snatched from another child. Your stomach does a flip flop as you realize this happens all the time. Counteracting rape culture is both harder and more within our control than we might think because rape culture is our culture, at all income and education levels, in all types of households.
It’s the norm of forcing kids to do what we say because we are in charge, of dragging and hauling their protesting bodies to where we want them, no matter how they object, of giving them no say in the big decisions that impact their lives. We do these things casually–they are completely accepted and normal. It was done to almost all of us. Even spanking is considered okay by a majority of Americans. But these are the roots of dehumanization and powerlessness that can grow into bitterness and a desire to control and take from others to feel whole, respected, or in charge (for some intense and excellent reading on the roots of violence in early childhood, see Karr-Morse and Wiley’s Ghosts from the Nursery or the works of Alice Miller, such as For your own Good)
What is desperately needed, in addition to all the important work on changing public culture, is for us to overcome our own hurts and hurtful habits and parent our babies and young children as if they were whole humans, as deserving of respect and autonomy as anyone else.
The list of things we must say “no” to is inescapably long and the list of things babies and young children cannot control for themselves is even longer. Recognizing their body autonomy and right to make decisions about what they do and how they do it is the earliest and most important step in overcoming rape culture.
It’s relatively easy to put respectful parenting into practice with babies, even if it’s the most counter-intuitive. It’s very satisfying because you immediately see their independence and capacity expanding. It’s also not hard to step in when my older kid overpowers his sibling to get what he wants. We do a lot of work on consent and body autonomy in the context of the sibling relationship.
My biggest challenge at the moment is stopping those wrongs against the younger sibling without doing the same thing to my elder child that he was doing to his brother, all while I feel angry at the injustice of what’s happening. It’s so hard and I fail often. Then I apologize, ask forgiveness, and commit to trying harder to deal with my anger in a less hurtful way.
This is not about parenting without limits–quite the contrary. Limits are crucial. But it is about setting the same standards for ourselves that we set for our kids and enforcing important limits with empathy and respect. It’s really really hard, but it’s key to giving our kids the self esteem and grounding they need to not take their hurts out on others as they grow up. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s about not breaking the natural sense of self worth they were born with.
My mother just walked through the door. My kids haven’t seen her in 3 weeks and have been asking non-stop when she would arrive. They adore her. She could have come in and swept them into her arms, knowing their relationship is one of trust and love. But because their relationship is one of trust and love and respect, she did not. She said “I’m so happy to see you, may I give you a hug?” Our parents have done tremendous work to heal the hurts of their own childhoods; it hasn’t been easy. It inspires me daily to keep working on all this.
If you need a hand, organizations like Hand in Hand Parenting are incredible resources. A friend gave us their pamphlets when we became parents. We go back to them regularly and loan them out often. While I sometimes find the RIE resources overwhelming, they are also a helpful tool in my toolkit and I go back to them whenever I’m feeling like I’ve gotten out of sync with my values as a parent. I have no affiliation or ties to these sites or organizations, they are just places I have gotten help when I needed it. There are plenty of others.
We can do this.