My husband rang me yesterday. An incident at school he said. A boy pulled our daughter’s pants down. In front of a group of other children. He put me on the phone with her and she was in floods of tears.
“I don’t know why he did it,” she said. “He was always nice to me.”
After failing to reach the teacher, I rang the boy’s mum. Thankfully we had met before. Drinks at a mutual friend’s house and a few other times. She seems nice, I thought. I will just call her. But my heart was in my throat. Would she defend him? Would she brush the incident off as typical boys’ behavior?
Thankfully, my fears were not realized. To my relief, and despite her initial shock, she immediately empathized with my daughter, articulating how devastated she must be. No, this would not do, she said. My husband and I are going to speak with our son right now and then, if it’s ok with you and your daughter, we will come to your house so he can apologize properly. I won’t be able to sleep if we don’t resolve this tonight.
We discussed our surprise that the teacher hadn’t reached out to us yet. Maybe he doesn’t have the same view as us women, she wondered out loud. Relief flooded my system. She gets it, I thought.
The boy and his parents came to our house. As he walked in, he immediately told me he was sorry. “Look people in the eye when you speak to them” his dad glowered. The conversation that followed was almost everything I could have wished for. The boy apologized, saying he knew it was wrong as soon as he did it, he has no idea why he did it.
“You were trying to be cool,” his mum said, “But that’s not what being cool means. It is not ok.” He nodded, looking dejected.
I knew that there had been a small group of boys who had been pulling each other’s pants down, including his, and I asked him how it felt when it happened to him. He told us he didn’t like it. “So, you can imagine how our daughter felt,” I said. “This doesn’t just hurt her, this hurts our whole family. It’s so important you learn to respect people’s boundaries, that you don’t do things to people’s bodies without their consent.”
And I told him that it was not ok that they did that to him either. And that he is also allowed to declare his boundaries and he has the right to have his personal boundaries respected.
Was this the worst thing that could have happened? No, it wasn’t the worst thing, of course not, but it hurt. She cried. I cried.
When it comes to sexism and violence, as a woman it can feel like your boundaries are eroded by endless waves of negative experience after negative experience. I once saw it described as “death by a thousand cuts.”
This could have been yet another cut, another experience that teaches my daughter that her boundaries don’t have to be respected, that girls and woman count for less. (Yes. Another, because there have been other experiences, even at her young age.) But instead, she, and the boy, learned something else.
Instead, they experienced my husband telling this boy that being a man does not mean using strength to hurt and humiliate others. That being strong means using your strength and privilege to stand up for others, to stop foolish behavior, even if it is “uncool”.
They experienced my family looking the boy in the eye and telling him that we would be the first ones in line to defend him and his rights to his own personal boundaries.
They experienced parents not sweeping the incident under the carpet and not saying “boys will be boys” to defend him. It’s holding him accountable for his actions, ensuring that he understood the implications before he offered a sincere apology.
I got to experience that warm relief that comes with not having to explain to people why boundaries matter, why all children should get to declare them. I got to just be the parent and not the person trying to educate the room as to why what had happened mattered in the first place. Truthfully, it felt like we were reaping the benefits of years of feminist activism.
Some days I feel pretty exhausted and heart-sore when confronted with patriarchal attitudes, and worried for what our daughters will undoubtedly go on to experience in their own lives.
But today wasn’t one of those days.
And I notch it up to feminism.