We parents try to bolster our children’s character and build up their confidence as they grow. We tell them to stand up for themselves and the world will stand with them. But telling kids standing up for yourself will always be celebrated is a lie. I was watching Blue Bloods the other night. A young female cop was sexually assaulted by her date. She didn’t want to report it for fear that her fellow officers would refuse to work with her because they would see her as a victim. Her partner told her, “If you stand up for yourself, no one will see you as a victim.” All I could do was laugh. Clearly this was fantasy and not reality, because the truth is that standing up for yourself, as righteous as it may be, bears no guarantee of support from society, your community, or even your peers. In some cases you can’t even count on all of your family members standing at your side.
When you stand up you buck the system, you challenge the status quo, and most people aren’t comfortable with that. Many people would prefer to follow along with the herd, not calling much attention to themselves, getting from point A to point B in life without any fanfare. And then there are the leaders of the pack. They particularly do not want to see any shifts in attention or power unless it is in their favor. Standing up means standing apart and it can be a very lonely place to be. Worse yet, it can be very windy from all of the blowback from people who aren’t happy with your choice.
We tell our kids all the time to “Stand up for yourself. Don’t let anyone push you around. Report injustice if you see it. Tell someone if you are being bullied.” Report this. Oppose that. We are very quick to hand out these instructions to our children, but it’s like teaching them to cross the street and neglecting to tell them that there will be traffic coming from all directions. It’s not the whole picture and it leaves them ill-prepared and unprotected. Our kids need to understand what standing up can look and feel like. They need to know that people are ostracized everyday for “doing the right thing” for themselves or others. Look at Jonathan Martin, the giant NFL player who left his Miami Dolphins team because he was being harassed and intimidated by his teammate. He did what he was “supposed” to do. He reported the racist taunts and the workplace harassment through proper channels and stood up for himself legally. That’s what we tell our kids to do. However, much of the public and many of his coworkers accused him of not really being a man for reporting the harassment. His own teammates publicly stated that they would prefer to play with his aggressor Richie Incognito, a man who admitted to tossing around racial slurs and physical threats and extorting money from Jonathan Martin, than play with Martin himself. Why? Because Jonathan Martin rocked the boat. He challenged the status quo and the league wasn’t happy about it. Jonathan Martin trained his whole life to play football. He was lucky enough and skilled enough to reach the professional level of play, but had to bench his own career in order to stand up for himself.
My daughter is living this scenario herself. While not a 300 lb. football player, she is tackling some pretty heavy stuff. Early this year she was harassed and discriminated against by her teacher and principal. She stood up for herself though, reporting the offense to me. When we couldn’t negotiate relief internally with the school we reported the situation to the School Board. That was the proper course of action. She stood up for herself, I stood up for her, and we turned to the Board’s Law office and expected them to stand up for her too. My daughter did what we tell our kids to do, she stood up for herself. She should have been celebrated right? Well, she wasn’t. Instead she was denigrated. She was retaliated against in her school, her classmates abandoned her, and the Board ignored her pleas. Nevertheless, she has kept her head up and continues to fight for her rights even though her peers left her to stand alone. She is being homeschooled while we await the ruling of a Department of Education Office of Civil Rights investigation. Like Jonathan Martin, my daughter has had to sacrifice her passion, school, in order to stand up for herself and demand the respect that she deserves. Many days she is sad and very lonely, but her resolve is remarkable. Even at 10 years young she is willing to pay a price for her dignity and her rights.
People chastised me for encouraging my daughter’s choice to seek justice. They told me that I was doing her a disservice by pursuing this case. They told me that I should have instructed her to just forget about the harassment and go back to school so she wouldn’t miss out on so much of her childhood. They got it wrong on so many levels. Ignoring blatant discrimination and harassment doesn’t make it disappear. The acts change you. They leave an impression on your soul. You have to deal with them or they can eat you up from the inside out. That’s what was happening to Jonathan Martin before he walked away. I know it happened to me when I was bullied as a child, too. Yet even knowing the havoc that inaction can wreak, I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t actually encourage my daughter to continue to fight for herself as her case dragged on. My whole adult life I have been a first responder, running into proverbial fires to save others to my own detriment and starting a few of my own to fuel what I believed to be right. In many ways my choices have been an effort to fight the demons of childhood abuse and reclaim my personal power. However, when it came to my daughter putting herself in emotional harm’s way, I got cold feet. I didn’t want to see her ostracized. I wanted her to just go to school and manage so she could do what she loves to do: learn. Despite being intimately familiar with the social and emotional consequences of not challenging people who are abusing their authority, my instinct was to cut our losses and let everything go to save my child from the solitary confinement of standing up for yourself. It was my daughter who had to encourage me to buck up. She is the one who has led this charge, I have simply existed in her wake. Her resolve has taught me so much about courage and personal responsibility. She makes me a better parent and a better human being. She’s right and the nay-sayers are wrong.
Look, I’m not saying we should tell our kids to nail themselves to a cross, but we shouldn’t discourage our children from standing up for themselves or anyone else either. I do think we should better prepare them for the reality of the choices that they have before them. Both have repercussions. Following the herd can feel safer, but if we see injustice occur to ourselves or someone else it doesn’t just go away if we keep walking forward. The echoes can linger in us and in some cases haunt us. And standing up of yourself can be a very lonely affair. It can induce push-back and retaliation from the very people whom you would think would be on your side. It’s like a storm on a highway, you can get to the other side of it, but you are going to get wet going through it.
I absolutely believe we should encourage our children to develop their own moral code. However we need to teach them to honor that code not for other people or validation from society, but because they won’t be able to live with themselves if they don’t. I am a big believer in living as though you don’t have a choice. Standing by your moral code should be something that cannot be avoided even if it means that it brings with it the dismay of your peers, the disapproval of some in the community or even the abandonment of people you thought were your friends. Your child needs to be prepared to face the music knowing that it may be the blues. But that’s okay, because it’s more important that they can look in their mirror and face their own reflection no matter what music is playing.
My hope is that you will tell your kids that standing up for themselves may not be celebrated by the world, but it will always be celebrated by you. As such they will never ever really be alone, you will stand with them always. And then do just that.
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