In the news, we’ve recently been bombarded with outrageous examples of male dominance, sexual control and coercion and the objectification of women in very public forums, the Bill Cosby story being but one instance.
Rape culture is a term coined to explain the very public and often pervasive attitudes in society that highlight coercion and control as central to a culture where sexual objectification exists. And while many parents discuss with older children and teens how to improve their safety in this culture, families are often silent about these issues during the early stages of childhood development. Yet it is during this crucial period that parents can give children the most effective tools to recognize these high risk attitudes in society.
By incorporating the following lessons into daily life, parents can empower their children to understand and regulate their emotions, responses and reactions, and can teach their children to appreciate these same feelings in others.
▪ Teach children that all emotions are important and should be respected. Children must be allowed to cry, to sulk and to be disappointed. When we rescue children rapidly (with promises of candy or another present), we rob them of the opportunity to learn how to accept these feelings. By doing so, we also demonstrate that we, as the parents, are uncomfortable with our natural range of emotions.
▪ When you say no, mean it and don’t backtrack. It’s well documented that inconsistent parenting can exacerbate a child’s behavior problems, but it also means the child does not develop the self-soothing skills needed to accept disappointment. In that same vein, allow your child to occasionally say no, and in those instances, allow your child to stand firm. When a younger child wants to play a game with her sister and the sister wants to play alone, it is tempting to require the older child to share with her younger sibling. But by doing so consistently, this teaches the older child that she needs to change her mind and ignore her own needs as she instead focuses on pleasing someone else.
▪ Allow children to backtrack. And when you backtrack (as parents inevitably will do), use it as a learning opportunity to teach children that we all have the right to change our minds. It may sound counter-intuitive, but think about it. Imagine packing everything up in the car, finally paying and getting into the ice skating rink, lacing up the skates, and hearing your child say, “I don’t want to skate.” Our initial thought would probably be to feel exasperated. But 10 years from now, as parents, we hope that our daughter’s date respects her feelings if she changes her mind about sexual activity. If your child changes his or her mind about something, respect your child’s instincts and encourage your child to talk about these thoughts and feelings.
▪ Recognize sexual objectification. Do not engage in body shaming. Learn to recognize instances when advertising makes a woman’s (or man’s) body into an object. Discuss this reality with your children and encourage them to think about people’s thoughts and feelings when they see images in the media and other outlets.
There is no way to inoculate our children from becoming victims or perpetrators of rape. But parents can help their children recognize and avoid the erroneous and harmful attitudes surrounding sex, power, control and coercion.
Jennifer Sager, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practitioner in Gainesville, Fla. www.jennifersager.com. Stacey Steinberg, J.D. is a legal skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Twitter: @sgsteinbergand on Facebook.