While your boys may like to be physical and like to wrestle and fight, please help them understand the concept of touch and of the personal boundaries of others as it relates to touch. Please help them know the difference between consensual play and physical violation – whether that’s with you, your partner, their siblings, their best friends, or strangers. Let them know now that they can say “no” and that they must listen when others say “no”. This isn’t about dating culture, it’s about the right of each of us to possess and protect our own bodies. They can and should start learning this now.
Fathers of daughters,
While you dote on your girls, please respect them if they say to “stop” when you playfully pat them on the bottom as they run ahead of you up the stairs, or when you tickle them in fun but it’s clear they are no longer having fun. Teach them and show them now that they are in control of their bodies and that “no means no.” Please help them learn the difference between safe and unsafe touching and remind them that they can and should always tell someone if they don’t feel safe. It doesn’t matter if the one doing the touching says they were playing or was a friend or a family member. If they don’t feel safe, they need to know to tell someone now.
Fathers of sons,
Please know your sons are watching how you treat others. They see how you speak to and touch your spouse. They observe how you talk with or about your Mom or Sister or Dad or Brother. They listen when you talk on the phone to people at work. They hear what you say to or about people when you yell at the driver in the car who just cut you off, or comment on the looks of the person crossing the street in front of you. In all of these, they hear the difference when you are speaking to and of a woman versus a man, and they will replicate your gender biases without ever knowing it is happening.
Fathers of daughters,
Your daughters will not grow up to be princesses. They will grow up to be women who live in a complex and diverse virtual and physical society. They will work and go to school in and navigate an often cruel and sexist world. Treating them as princesses and crafting a narrative that finding a mate is central to their success, that their hair is their most valuable asset, that their clothes are what make them beautiful will cripple their self-image as they get acne, as their bodies change, start successfully or unsuccessfully dating, or, god forbid, they get sick or have a terrible accident that changes their looks and bodies permanently. You must raise your girls to be strong, bold, independent, and resilient women whose sense of self is in their control and not merely the passive result of a genetic trait or financial privilege.
Fathers of sons,
Your boys will not be princes surrounded by admiring legions of women looking to be rescued by love, nor super heroes who will save damsels in distress. Your sons will grow up and get to work for and with women of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds and should know how to respect them for who and what they are. They need to know that they can have heroes who are women. They need to understand that women and men are different but that that does not mean stronger or weaker, better or worse, deserving of respect or not. When your son is on the playground with a girl, don’t thoughtlessly ask if that’s his girlfriend. Let it just be his friend unless he says otherwise. Positively reinforce and model for him healthy, platonic, inter-gender relationships.
Fathers of daughters,
When your daughter is on the playground with a boy, don’t thoughtlessly ask if that’s her boyfriend. Let it just be her friend. You too should model healthy, platonic, inter-gender relationships and not perversely sexualize your young daughter’s budding understanding of her relationships with others. If your daughter kisses another kid or holds hands or even says she loves them, remember that those actions don’t represent mature, adult “understandings” of their meaning. My daughter told us she is “in love” with a boy in her kindergarten class, and when asked what she means by that she says he’s nice to her and they like to play together. Leave it at that! That’s all it is.
Fathers of sons and fathers of daughters,
Please help your boys and girls know that the genders are not pitted against each other – that they aren’t “teams” to which they either belong or don’t. Help them understand that gender is meaningless in the face of fairness, personal safety, justice, and love. Help them understand that they should stand for these higher values and defend them at all cost, that they should never be silent in the face of their transgression simply because of someone’s gender. Help them build their identities and their sense of self and others on these bigger values, and surround themselves with people who will protect and promote them too.
As I wrote this, I realized that my distinctions of message were largely arbitrary between fathers-of-sons and fathers-of-daughters, but the various interpretations are important. We must all teach our children to respect their own bodies as well as others’. We must teach them to value this respect so deeply that they can’t help but speak up when they feel violated or when they see or believe others have been violated. We must overwhelm any possible sense of shame or embarrassment or isolation with a powerful sense of self, of justice, and of doing right by themselves and others.
These are merely the musings of a humble and sad and troubled father of three and five year old daughters, who is trying to learn from the tragedies I read about daily and prevent the violation of the women I love; a Dad and Brother and Friend who can’t fathom the actions of these men; the Son of a sexually abused Dad who committed suicide who is scared to death of the prolonged silence of these victims.