No matter what your thoughts are on #MeToo or #TimesUp, many parents of young girls may think, “She’s still so young. Do I really need to talk to her about something so adult?”
With the topic spreading far beyond social media—including the recent Golden Globes broadcast, featuring powerful speeches given by women in entertainment, such as Oprah—the surrounding movement to stop sexual harassment, assault, and the overall unequal treatment of women in general may already be on your girl’s radar. While it’s up to each parent or family to do what’s right for their girl, the age she may need to know about these topics starts younger than most people think.
Why? The discrimination and abuse of girls starts early, and it is likely to already be happening to your daughter or one of her friends. More than one in ten girls is catcalled before her 11th birthday, and more than one in six girls in elementary and secondary school deals with gender-based harassment. Beyond this being patently wrong and damaging to girls’ well-being, discrimination can also distance girls from activities and subjects in school, like math and science, where she feels unwelcome or worries she may not be able to compete. We can’t afford to be quiet about it any longer.
For far too long, the responsibility has been put on girls and women to stay out of harm’s way rather than on boys and men to not harm in the first place. Similarly, for far too long, girls and women have been told either to keep quiet about harassment and abuse so as to not cause a scene or alternatively, to speak out immediately in the face of sexual harassment, abuse, and general sexism—despite the effect that could have on their schooling, career, credibility, and future prospects. If and when they do speak out, they are often framed as too sensitive, or making a big deal out of something minor, despite the damage the harassment is doing to her.
We owe our girls a world where they can speak up without fear of retribution and where their concerns are always taken seriously and given a careful hearing, and providing her with the tools and tips to advocate for herself are a powerful start. It’s also time for boys and men to take an active role in advocating for the worth of girls and women and to not only value and support their female peers but also call out abusive and sexist behaviors when they occur.
There’s no doubt that we still live in a society in which our daughters need to know (from a very young age) how to spot potentially dangerous situations, how to defend themselves if necessary, and how to speak up should they ever have the need. We need to help girls, and all of our children, realize their worth and find the confidence to use their voices not only to their own benefit, but also to create a more just and safe world for all of us.
If you’re unsure how to broach the topic with your kids, consider asking them what they’ve heard about discrimination or harassment, if they’ve read about it on social media, or if it’s a topic of conversation with their school friends. Alternatively, many TV shows and movies provide examples of gender-based harassment, violence, or general discrimination and can act as a natural conversation starter. Ask your kids how they feel about what they saw, and let the discussion evolve from there.
When you talk to your daughter about gender discrimination, harassment, and related issues, emphasize:
- Harassment, unwanted touching, and sexist behavior are never her fault, no matter what.
- Unwanted touching or “teasing” is not a sign that someone likes her. If someone truly likes her, they’ll treat her with respect and kindness.
- There is no need to be “nice” or “polite” in the face of sexual harassment, unwanted touching, or damaging behavior—because none of those are nice or polite at all. It is absolutely fine to ignore the harassment and walk away or, if she feels safe, to stand up to the harasser and let them know their actions are unacceptable.
- Pretending that nothing’s wrong or ignoring a situation of harassment or abuse without telling a trusted adult can actually do more harm than good (many girls try to put on a brave face or decide to “not let it bother them”). It’s not selfish or self-centered to put her own safety and well-being first. Plus, if someone is harassing her, there’s a good chance they’re doing it to others as well.
- Even if she’s not sure something “counts” as harassment or abuse, she should always tell you or another trusted adult if someone’s behavior or actions simply don’t feel right to her. This isn’t about getting anyone in trouble, it’s about standing up for herself and what’s right.
- Experiencing sexual harassment, unwanted touching, or sexist behavior does not make her weak and is nothing to be embarrassed about.
- If someone sexually harasses, abuses, or discriminates against her because she is a girl, she is not alone. Many prominent, successful women and girls around the world have had similar experiences. Let her know you have her back and that there is a powerful community that does too.