A few weeks ago, I found out that a boy in my 11-year-old daughter’s sixth grade class had mentioned her specifically in some pretty inappropriate, and graphic, conversations among his friends. My daughter overheard this “locker room talk.” From what I heard, it was enough to make any adult blush — and any dad want to take some measures.
After finding out about this incident, I was furious. My little girl was spoken about in very crass terms. But before I reacted, I stopped myself and thought hard. I remember the pressure for boys at this age to “outdo” each other with bravado and displays of masculinity, often at the expense of their female peers. This doesn’t excuse that behavior — not at all — but I also felt that it was early enough in their lives that a quick intervention could both teach my daughter how to protect herself, and the boys that their idiotic bluster has serious consequences.
So, my daughter and I had a conversation about how she should handle the situation. I didn’t tell her what to do, but we did discuss the recent #MeToo movement, how women should never tolerate this kind of behavior, and the options she had. She decided she would go straight to her teacher for resolution. To her credit, she felt empowered to do so, and knew that this was the right thing to do. At first, she was a bit embarrassed to describe the extent of the language, but with some encouragement, she soon got the courage to make it clear why she felt victimized.
It was a tough scenario for me, because my first instinct was to play the hero, to go into school, to seek justice by punishing that boy, to butt heads with anyone and everyone who made my daughter uncomfortable. But I knew that would not help her. I knew it would escalate a situation beyond everyone’s control, and it wouldn’t do anything to make my daughter’s life better in the long term. So I had the tough conversation with my daughter to guide her to be strong, for herself.
What happened afterwards both comforted and surprised me. The school sprung into action, speaking to the boys as a whole about that type of behavior, and then, specifically to the offending boy, and his parents. The parents responded well, reprimanded their son, and apologized to my daughter and to us for their child’s behavior. The boy even felt genuine remorse, apologized to my daughter, and their relationship is even better now that he understands that his words have consequences.
I asked my daughter if she was satisfied with how the school and the boy responded, and she was. I was, too. At this age, children do thoughtless things, and I admittedly remember being similarly stupid in my youth before I knew what I know now.
What surprised me, however, was the internal social conflict that ensued later amongst the girls. One girl in particular went on a campaign to try and stop my daughter from coming forward, telling her that she’d be bringing up needless drama and conflict among the grade, doubting her story, and basically taking it upon herself to be the boy’s champion and advocate during the situation. I knew this because I was able to see the chats and texts among the group, and I was shocked by the level of involvement this girl had decided to take upon herself.
I had never quite understood the concept of why some girls and women don’t come forward to report harassment and/or assault, and while this didn’t rise to that level, the challenges for those who want to stick up for themselves are similar. The disbelief, the lack of support, the idea that it is better to not “stir the pot” all contribute to further victimization. But that’s not just harmful to women. That behavior also denies the boy the opportunity to learn from a mistake early enough in his development to make a difference before the behavior becomes irreparably toxic.
Again, we sat down with my daughter to discuss the whole situation. We had to make sure she understood that none of this was her fault, that the boy is the only one at fault. She also needed to know that she will always be well within her right to defend herself, and she can tell anyone she wants in order to do so, and she should not concern herself with the consequence of the person who is at fault. Finally, we let her know that sometimes, when you stick up for what’s right, it makes people uncomfortable, especially if they are dealing with their own issues and insecurities. Real friends, we added, support you no matter what.
Unfortunately, there was little I could do as a father about the issue between the girls. But my daughter understood, and was able to handle the situation on her own. She confronted her “friend,” and made sure she understood what was and wasn’t her place in what was going on. In the end, the girl stood down, especially when it was clear that my daughter and the boy were in a better place: one of mutual respect and understanding.
The through line in this story, you’ll recognize, is that I can’t say I did much. My daughter really took the mantle. And that’s a result of the fact that, since my daughter was very young, my wife and I have worked hard to make sure she and her sister have high levels of self esteem, and we’ve tried hard to let them know it’s okay for them to advocate for themselves. Unfortunately, we also knew that as a girl, she may have to defend herself in these types of situations. So the key was that we made sure she didn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed to come forward. What surprised me was that we also had to discuss the possibility of not receiving the support she would need from other girls, and how their own insecurities would cause them to compound the difficulty and stress of this type of experience.
I was upset that I had to have these type of conversations with an 11 year old, but I am also glad we had them early enough to make a difference, before a more serious situation could potentially occur. Dads have to be ready to set aside our instinctual, protective, papa bear feelings, and teach our daughters how to fend for and advocate for themselves. As much as we may want to be her hero in all things, we need to instead encourage them to be their own knights in shining armor. I couldn’t be more proud of her.