I don’t know about you guys, but the #metoo movement has become a pretty big topic for conversation in our house. As a mom of both boys and girls, and a wife to a husband who had some wild times in college, and a parent in a house that has grown more and more into a house led by faith and convictions over time, the more I read about #metoo the more I feel led in my own home to confront some pretty challenging questions that come up as our children get older. I’ve seen questions posed again and again on homeschool mom blogs about how to broach tough and uncomfortable subjects that continue to pop up in the news with children who are too young to really understand what’s going on. What should we share with them? How do we protect their innocence? How do we create a sensitivity in them to the lives of others, without sharing so much that it burdens them?
One of my favorite responses when people ask me if I’m concerned about socialization of my homeschooled kids is, “eh. I figure I’ll let them learn cuss words from other kids later on.” I know, I’m hilarious. But in all seriousness, there is a tremendous amount of relief I get in the ability to control how my children hear about the scary and uncomfortable truths in the world. We don’t watch cable news in our house (for a litany of reasons, not the least of which is that we just don’t watch much TV period), so what our kids hear about typically comes from things we read or topics we discuss. But when it comes to #metoo, I feel like there’s too much out there to just keep it as an off-limits discussion. And even though my kiddos are still pretty young and pretty sheltered, I completely believe the lessons of #metoo are worth turning into legitimate parenting practices that will help shape our squad into well-adjusted, socially and emotionally intelligent young adults.
I love the idea of gentle parenting. I love getting down at eye level with my squad and talking to them in a quiet voice and listening to their thoughts as they try to communicate their feelings with me whenever I can. But you guys, sometimes kids are not gentle. The #metoo movement may have been a catalyst in bringing about what I’m sharing here, but I can tell you without a doubt that I had to start grappling with how to set boundaries with my children long before #metoo became a thing. My oldest child, who has autism, has a hard time understanding it’s not always appropriate to kiss or push or shout or run in response to her emotions. My nine year old has a hard time respecting personal space, and has been known on multiple occasions to exaggerate her own trauma so that the offending sibling is in more trouble than the situation might deem necessary. My boys wrestle and push and scream and tackle and have very little use for the word “no” when it comes to what they can and cannot do with their bodies. It’s hard. And in trying to raise kids who are sensitive to the needs of others while still protecting themselves and their own needs, I’ve had more than a few days where the coffee wasn’t strong enough and the wine wasn’t flowing fast enough. True story.
But…the other benefit of being a homeschool mom is that I genuinely get a tremendous amount of practice correcting behavior that needs correcting, and a tremendous amount of opportunities to see what works and doesn’t work in shaping the way my kiddos interact with others. As the hubs and I grappled with how to raise smart and sensitive boys and strong and confident girls in a world where consent and boundaries are so blurred and the consequences of getting those things wrong are pretty dire, I’ve had to have some pretty serious conversations with myself about how well I set boundaries, how well I stick to them, and how well I support my husband or my children as they attempt to set and enforce their own boundaries. This is about more than getting kids to play nicely together: it’s about teaching our children to set boundaries that keep themselves safe and respected, and identifying that other people have the right to do the same.
My husband and I are both HR professionals by trade. When I was working, I conducted my fair share of interviews related to sexual harassment and workplace violence, and I terminated a fairly significant amount of people for misconduct that ranged anywhere from making inappropriate jokes or gestures to egregious sexual misconduct that required law enforcement involvement. And, as a woman in a male-dominated work environment, I also dealt with (and mostly ignored) a plethora of inappropriate commentary (my favorite: “please tell your boobs to stop staring me in the face”) while trying to preserve my dignity climbing the corporate ladder. Nothing made me feel better in those days than vindicating people who’d been disrespected at work by terminating or otherwise disciplining their abusers. And I beam with pride every time I hear my husband explain over the phone to someone who’s furious at their termination or disciplinary action that their behavior was unacceptable in the workplace and that employees have an expectation to treat one another with respect, period. I love that. We’ve also both had to go back to a handful of employees after investigations and explain that, in fact, the situation they described to us was not harassment. There were more than a few times I conducted an investigation that uncovered a situation that was just two people disagreeing with one another, and the accused employee often left those investigations feeling like even after being cleared of wrongdoing, their name had been sullied and things would never be the same.
This is the world. I left the workplace long before #metoo, but those stories are real to me. And for our children who will enter the workplace long after, the lesson of respect and boundaries should resonate pretty loudly, at most if we want them to be good people of strong character, and at the very least if we want them to find success without being haunted by mistakes made in the ignorance of youth. So here’s what I’m taking to my crew now, with the hope that these will be building blocks for them as they continue to understand more about what interactions look like, at school, at play, in sports, in dating, in college, in the workplace, and one day, in their own families:
You create your own boundaries: that’s all you. I have a kid who loves to be hugged and doted on. I have another who wipes off my kisses faster than I can put them on him. When I finally asked him why he wipes off mommy’s smooches, he said, in complete seriousness, “Mom, all that kissing just makes me a little uncomfortable.” After I got over the heartbreak that my precious 4-year-old angel baby doesn’t like his mommy smooches (seriously, knife to my heart), I told him I was sorry, and I genuinely was. We high five each other now and he tells me when he wants hugs. This guy just likes his space. And that’s okay. What’s good for one person doesn’t have to be good for another, and that’s okay.
Your boundaries can change based on how you feel and where you are. And truthfully, who you’re with. This is a big deal to me with my squad. One minute my kiddos can enjoy playing together, and the next they’re at each others’ throats. “Play with us, Cora! Please play!!!!” My boys will shout at their sister as she’s decided she’s had enough of their foolishness and shuts herself in her room for some quiet time. My initial reaction was “Cora, your brothers don’t like being excluded, let’s come back and work this out.” But…in addressing my own boundaries (or lack thereof), I realized my own sanity requires me to have some breaks from my kiddos. Even if it’s the quiet 20 minutes of yoga or 30 minute morning bible time to myself, I need that space to recharge, and it’s up to me to protect that time. Once I started enforcing that boundary, it was easier for me to flex into being more available for my kids the rest of the time, and it became easier for me to let my crew do the same. Sometimes the boundary says it’s okay to play dodgeball or tickle fight, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the boundary says “you can be in my space and spend time with me” and sometimes it’s the opposite. And that’s okay.
You are responsible for making your boundaries known and enforcing them. This one is a huge challenge for me as a mom, and I pass this on to my children if I’m not careful. It is extremely tempting to allow or even expect other people to set and enforce boundaries for us, but that job belongs to us. I can remember my kids whining because they wanted to join me for a trip to Target, and begrudgingly taking them with me, even though I really needed to make the trip alone, because my husband didn’t intervene and insist that I go alone. He didn’t force me to take them- I took them, but I only took them because I had hoped he’d tell them they had to stay. That’s not any different than hoping someone else stops an uncomfortable situation from happening. It may seem small, but that day was the precursor to a huge life-change in myself that started with me vocalizing my boundaries more readily, starting with my children, and empowering them to do the same. It’s okay to tell a person you don’t want to hug them, or you aren’t comfortable with them hugging your children. It’s okay to say you don’t want to participate in an uncomfortable discussion, or that you don’t want someone to use a certain type of language or offensive word around you. It’s okay for our children to tell us that certain experiences scare them, or make them uncomfortable, or that they need space, and it’s up to us as their parents to empower them to do so. It’s hard for kids to understand this concept in a world where adults seem to have more and more authority over what kids can do, and it’s hugely important for us to help them find their voices to draw boundaries with other people. And it’s hard for us to help them if we struggle with this ourselves. Draw the boundary, mama. And then stick to it. You can do this.
Once you set a boundary, no one is allowed to cross it without a consequence. In our house, the consequence is usually “I’m telling Mom.” No seriously. You name it, it merits telling Mom. But…it creates an amazing environment for discussion about what our boundaries are and what the consequences should be. My littlest dude is the family instigator. He’s just the worst. He will punch, hit, prod, nag, and annoy as long as he possibly can to get a reaction from his siblings, but if you turn the tables on him, dude is running to mom with crocodile tears about “him being mean to me!!!” This creates a pretty awesome culture of “don’t dish it out if you can’t take it,” of which I’m a pretty huge fan. Beyond that though, is the real conversation with my older kids, which is, “how do I set consequences? What kind of consequences are there?” We’ve talked about how a loss of trust is a consequence when the boundary is “tell the truth about what you’ve done,” or loss of privileges (like playing in sister’s room with her legos) when you show you don’t respect the space you’ve been trusted with. I don’t expect my squad to play with one another or grant one another’s requests carte blanche anymore, since I’ve given them the power to set their own boundaries and consequences, and it’s gone a long way in teaching them to change their behavior to get what they want. And they in turn learn that their choices can have positive or negative outcomes, which is a beautiful thing.
You can always ask for help if people are not respecting the boundaries you set. The turning point for me in starting these conversations with my children was the latest report in the Catholic priest abuse scandals. It infuriated me to think of how many children were abused after parents reported abuse, because nothing was done. And after years of experience investigating abuse in the workplace, I know how rarely people report incidents because of feeling like nothing will be done, and how the cycle of doing nothing perpetuates itself. Friends, we owe it to ourselves and our children to support the boundaries we set with action. And the biggest way I do this in my house, aside from backing my children up and enforcing the consequence they’re attempting to enforce, is to remind them that there are no bad guys and good guys. Good people can do bad things and bad people can do good things. When I explain to my the child who crossed the line with his or her sibling that their behavior is unacceptable, the first response from them is typically “you hate me!” or “you think I’m a bad kid!” Nope. Not flying with me, baby. Bad behavior doesn’t make you a bad person, but you bet you your behind in this house that bad behavior is still bad behavior, no matter who’s doing it. There can be no protection for people who are violating boundaries, just because “they’re on our side.” Again and again I see people defending absolutely inexcusable actions, because the person who is executing those actions is part of an overarching stereotype that is typically doing good. There are teachers, doctors, pastors, priests, bosses, police officers, and a whole host of other professionals who have used their authority to prey on innocent people, and they are not exempt from respecting the boundaries of the people with whom they interact. You guys, we have to show this to our children. They need to know that no one’s authority in the world gives them a right to abuse another person. If he’s your boss, your teacher, your mentor, your trusted confidante, whomever, he doesn’t have a right to mistreat you, and he doesn’t have a right to cross a line that you’ve drawn. Does this make him a criminal if he crosses that line? It depends on what he does. But if he crosses that line, and you redirect him, and he doesn’t respect what you’ve said, you can ask for help from someone who will respect you. In the workplace, in your friend circle, at home, wherever, you deserve to be treated with respect, and there are people who will help you protect the boundaries you’ve drawn. As parents, we owe it to our children to show them that when someone disregards their boundaries, we will support them in enforcing those boundaries, regardless of who the violator is. Whether that’s saying they don’t have to hug that neighbor, or play with that aggressive friend, or watch that scary movie. They will see our support and it will give them confidence and trust that their boundaries, and subsequently their feelings, are valid. It will also help them see that they’ll be held accountable for their actions, regardless of their position or role in the situation.
And lastly: you are responsible for respecting other people’s boundaries. At the heart of the entire #metoo movement is respect. It breaks my heart to watch the reactions of people I genuinely care about on social media- taking sides, showing extreme anger towards one group while totally ignoring the wrongdoings of people in their own groups. The tribalism of politics is mind-blowing to me. Ultimately in the entire lesson of helping my children set and enforce their own boundaries is the fact that they absolutely must respect the boundaries of others. I posted something on my Facebook feed recently letting people know my very strong feelings about the use of the word “retarded” and the fact that it really ought not to be used at all. And some smart aleck responded with “what about if something is flame retardant? The list of words we can’t these days is getting ridiculous. Are we just not supposed to talk to each other anymore?” You guys, if you can’t tell the difference between when a word is disrespectful (like using the “r” word as a descriptor which is entirely offensive) and when it’s not, you probably shouldn’t be talking to anyone anyway. The #metoo movement doesn’t mean you can’t date anyone you work with, and it shouldn’t make you afraid to approach a person of the opposite sex. But it sure as hell should make you think twice before continuing to ask a person to date you when that person has said they’re not interested. It should make you think twice before you make a joke about the size of your genitals, or get too drunk at your company Christmas party and make lewd comments at your coworkers. It should scare the hell out of you if you’re considering sending inappropriate pictures to some person you work with or if you feel compelled to grab that acquaintance who you can’t get out of your mind. There’s a legit difference between a world where people get along because their boundaries are respected and a world where we’re scared to talk to each other and choose to just go it alone. It’s easy to respect someone else’s boundaries if you approach other human beings with respect. But you have to start with respect.
In our house, the first reaction (usually from my nine year old) to someone enforcing their boundaries is “fine. I didn’t want to play with you anyway.” And that’s essentially the reaction most of my Facebook feed has to #metoo. Fine. We won’t talk to each other. We won’t approach the opposite sex. We belong to one side, or we belong to another. No need for boundaries, let’s just build a giant fence that keeps the bad guys out and the good guys in. The problem there is that eventually one of the guys on the inside winds up doing bad things. Because we all have good and bad in us. And we have a choice: we can defend the people who are like us, even when they disregard the rules or boundaries set by other people, because we’ve decided whose side we’re on, or we can confront and correct the bad that’s in us and around us. It’s true, we can do the whole “you stay over there and I’ll stay over here” thing, but that does nothing to fix the fact that boys have to learn that they can’t insist a girl perform sexually just because they’re on a date and that’s what pornography has told them to expect. And it does nothing to fix the fact that girls have to learn that saying no means no and that a person who doesn’t respect that boundary doesn’t deserve to be in a relationship with them. If we want our children to be strong and successful and healthy and kind, we have to teach them to stand up for themselves, and to respect when other people are doing the same. It hurts my heart to tell one of my children that they’re going to have to play with another toy or on their own while their siblings need time to themselves or while they finish their turn with said toy. But it builds their character and teaches them that other people have boundaries, that those boundaries are valid, and that they’ll survive living without that interaction that in the moment they feel is absolutely necessary.
Having hurt feelings isn’t fatal. Not getting what you want simply because you want it isn’t fatal. And approaching other people with respect and anticipating that they may not want to interact with us in the exact way we want to interact with them isn’t fatal either. It takes a lot of vulnerability to change the way you approach someone, to apologize when you overstep their boundaries, and to voice where you’re drawing boundaries yourself, but it’s possible. And if we start building those habits in our children while they’re young, it will be much easier for them than it is for us as adults.
Here’s to cultivating a culture of respect in our kids and in ourselves, friends.