Recently, my first-grader was called out for teasing a classmate. The boy had asked my daughter several times to stop saying that she wanted to kiss so-and-so. But she didn’t stop, and so he went to the teacher.
My immediate thought was, “Wow, kissy-talk and boys are totally not her style.” Then, I felt defensive and protective. My mind turned to little excuses like, “well, what do you expect at this age?” Finally, reality. And I promised to talk about it some more at home.
Of course, even if kissing taunts are what kids have done at this age since forever, my daughter’s classmate demonstrated that it’s nonetheless unacceptable. It wasn’t fun or funny to him. So he appealed to authority — an authority that recognized my girl’s behavior as in the category of harassment. Three things on this: (1) Good on that kid for telling the teacher. Even though my daughter’s school is known for creating an open and safe place to air these kinds of grievances, reporting bad behavior isn’t easy. (2) I’m glad my daughter’s school takes this kind of “schoolyard behavior” seriously — had my daughter been the one getting teased, you bet I’d want the grown-ups stepping in. And (3), I appreciate having my eyes opened to the idea that even young (and nice) kids need to learn about these kinds of boundaries, as weird as it is to call them sexual when we’re talking first grade.
Anyway, I am reminded of this incident at school when I read the past two weeks’ big stories: Herman Cain accused of sexual harassment; a study found nearly half of almost 2,000 7th- through 12th-graders reported that they had been sexually harassed in school; and Joe Paterno, Penn State and other sick cowards made it easy and comfortable for Jerry Sandusky to rape little boys.
Clearly, what did and is said to have happened in these three stories is unacceptable. I’m assuming a majority of us don’t like that we live in this kind of culture — where harassment is tolerated and these crimes at Penn State went covered up. What’s interesting to me is how these two things are related and both have to do with our reluctance to speak up.
In terms of sexual harassment, I think we are confused by what sexual harassment is and, in light of the school study, that’s something we as a society need to have a conversation about. The conversation needs to be open and safe, and we can’t let it get derided by quirky news items about 4-year-olds being kicked out of preschool for hugging too much. This sexual harassment conversation needs to happen between adults and then it also needs to happen with kids — kids who aren’t yet in middle school. It needs to include boys as well as girls, and take into account the fact that boys can be victims and girls perpetrators.
Importantly, we need to lay out the options for how to handle it right now, before kids are confronted with harassment (which is, apparently, pretty inevitable). To do that, adults need to pull it together and quit thinking it’s just part of life (or, in my case, childhood antics). We need to decide it sucks (and its painful and harmful and, depending on how extreme, illegal). We also need to know that we’re not the only ones who think it sucks so we can stop beating ourselves up for being “too sensitive” or “PC” or “helicopter moms” or whatever. It’s a conversation! No one’s getting cuffed. We just all need to get, if not on the same page, at least on the same chapter.
We’ve got to tell kids that if they’re uncomfortable with someone’s teasing, they can tell that person to stop. And they can be loud and aggressive about telling someone to stop, too. And if he or she doesn’t stop, kids should know they can ask for help from someone with authority.
This is where we shift the conversation to people with authority, who need to take the accusations seriously. Adults need to work hard to make the harassment stop, even if everyone around you calls you the PC Police or says “boys will be boys” or “you’re hurting the dynamic on this award-winning sports team!” We’re all raising the next generation of bosses and coaches — whether we are mothers and fathers or not — and sticking your neck out is part of the job of being human and decent.
Responding to the sexual harassment in schools study, New York Times‘ Motherlode blogger KJ Dell’Antonia correctly points out that there’s no easy road for those who report misconduct. Because we live in a culture that still likes to blame the victim — or at least undermine her credibility — Dell’Antonia doesn’t think she’d counsel a girl to report being sexually harassed. From the New York Times:
“Against that all-too-familiar backdrop, I’m wondering how I’d advise a daughter who came to me with a description of school hallways she hates to walk down because every fourth boy has found a fresh new way of making a lewd gesture. Would I tell her to go to school administrators, who are required by Title IX to prevent the creation of a hostile environment? Or would I suggest she perfect her eye roll?
I don’t think I like my answer. What’s yours?”
I don’t like her answer either. My answer is do both: roll your eyes all the way to an administrator’s office. Give your kids the words if they’re ready: “She keeps telling everyone I’m into fellatio,” or “He’s flicking his tongue as if performing cunnilingus.” Nothing like discomfort to get adults hopping.
Anyway, I think it’s the hesitation to speak up — that kind of unwillingness as the messenger to get shot — that worms its way into our conscience and makes us do unthinkable things. Case in point: Mike McQueary, former graduate assistant coach at Penn State, who, according to a grand jury report, actually witnessed Sandusky raping a 10-year-old. From Maureen Dowd’s column in the Times:
Paterno was told about it the day after it happened by Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant coach who testified that he went into the locker room one Friday night and heard rhythmic slapping noises. He looked into the showers and saw a naked boy about 10 years old “with his hands up against the wall, being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky,” according to the grand jury report.
It would appear to be the rare case of a pedophile caught in the act, and you’d think a graduate student would know enough to stop the rape and call the police. But McQueary, who was 28 years old at the time, was a serf in the powerfully paternal Paternoland. According to the report, he called his dad, went home and then the next day went to the coach’s house to tell him.
I am haunted by the fact that McQueary’s first impulse wasn’t to throttle a naked man assaulting a little boy in a locker room. I would hope that the vast majority of us, without consultation and a good night’s sleep, wouldn’t have considered for even a second what we were risking and simply walked into that shower, wrapped our arms around the boy and carried him to safety. I’ve got three kids, they are dear to me, and, honestly, I’m counting on that kind of back up.
I also hope somehow to convey to my kids how important it is to stick up for others — to report harassment, to understand an emergency when they witness one. I’m not sure how to do that, because sometimes there are risks that make doing the right thing a difficult decision, or intervening in an emergency dangerous. Yet, if they’re ever in McQueary’s shoes, the first phone call they make had better be to the police to report a crime and not to me to do a little soul-searching. Otherwise, I most certainly have failed.
As Dell’Antonia hints at on the Motherlode, doing the right thing — the legal thing, even — isn’t always rewarded and is frequently punished. It’s important that, in this big conversation, we tell our kids that, too. And also this: the truth may not always prevail, but this week, (1) the truth reminded us that sexual harassment didn’t end in the ’80s, and (2) the truth ruined the glorious reputation of a man and football program who don’t deserve one.