Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Too polite to speak my mind - are we setting our children up as future victims?

So this is a little off track - or maybe not, as it is about my children - but nothing to do with adoption or race for once: Instead this is a subject that touches my very own old stuff,  creeping it's way back into my life, as horrifyingly confusing as the first time round but - and this is my hope - with a new clarity and a different outcome.

This is about the big uncomfortable silence where we should be talking, but our social conditioning tells us not to "go there". This is about the pitfalls we as parents blindly stumble into or negotiate on instinct and good luck alone. Or we choose to ignore the issue all together as it only ever happens to "other people". But where our society seems to prescribe collective blindness, the facts are painting a scary picture: Statistically every 4th child gets sexually abused in some way before turning the corner into adolescence and the vast majority of abusers are the very people they know and trust.

This is about how we might be unwittingly setting our children up as victims. This is about my own recent wake up call,  how it impacted on my life, my friendships and my-self.  This is not about casting suspicion on somebody and starting a campaign to find your nearest sex-offender  - this is about pulling together as a community of parents and friends, about  finding our voices in whatever makes us feel uncomfortable and learn to really listen to each other with our hearts, with an open mind and without judgement...

This is about my 4 year old gender-non-confirming child, who takes her time getting to know people and then changes his mind about them as she goes along, for reasons only known to him. She stands her ground when it comes to her personal space. He does not hug or kiss or even smile if she does not feel like it.   And people asking for kisses or hugs as a form of greeting mostly get a brush off or the occasional kick, which (in my own book) puts me in the categories of "mums who fail to convey basic rules of social engagement".  But having a childhood history with adults overstepping my  boundaries - I silently admire her for standing his ground.  The big reward with Kala seems always just around the corner, whenever she makes these glorious exceptions giving his affection freely and from her heart. My silent support I was hoping would be enough to make him strong and confident to always trust in her feelings... but sadly this was not the case.

A couple of weeks ago on an evening out I saw Kala making her way towards one of our friends, visiting from overseas with his wife and daughters, all of whom she knows quite well, but does not see very often. There was something in the way she approached him that alerted me. She seemed a little awkward,  almost embarrassed - and not her usual determined self. She made quite a production of climbing onto his chair, putting her arms around his neck and  pecking him on the cheek before asking him: Can I have your phone now?  (he had brought with him the latest I-Phone with quite a few funky apps for his kids).
To which he replied: No you can't. It's too late now.
Her face crumbled with emotions: sadness, disappointment, confusion, outrage.... she clearly had worked herself up to this display of "affection" and was not getting out of it what she had expected.  As my child argued to no avail and eventually ran off to play with her friends, switching to happy play-mode in a second - and people all around me were having a good time,  I was left feeling that something was not right. Yet, I had no words for "it".

Until "it" came up again the next morning when I was making tea and Kala was playing with her dolls in the kitchen, asking me: please mama can you buy me a phone like .... he has.
So I asked her:
- what happened yesterday with the phone?-
immediately that indignant, disappointed look again.
-mama - she wailed -  that was SO unfair"
-what was unfair?- I asked
-He said, I could have his phone if I kissed him on the lips. But I didn't want to kiss him on the lips-
but mama I did kiss him and he did not give me his phone-

I suddenly understood what had made me feel so uncomfortable about that scene the previous evening: it was not the fact that she had kissed somebody because she might have thought that would get her what she wanted. What  raised all my alarm bells was the manipulation of my 4 year old child by "punishing" her (it's too late now) for not complying with whatever demands were put to her in exchange for the phone-reward. Whether or not this was intentional or totally oblivious and innocent - did not even matter. The fact that an adult, a friend, a fellow parent interacted with my child in this way was not OK.

I also asked myself how the mantra I keep telling my children that they should never kiss or touch anybody or allow anybody to touch them if it makes them feel uncomfortable - could be so totally ignored or misunderstood by my 4 year old powerhouse...

I tried talking to her about these boundaries - again.


I said to her that friends sometimes make mistakes and this was a mistake and he will not do this again. She said:

I ran out of words.  Watching my child struggle to make sense of a world where she has to "trade" her integrity for something she really wants,  where she feels she has to ignore her boundaries because somebody who holds all the power promises her a reward.... made me feel sick. If I had not witnessed this exchange, what would she be learning for future encounters with him or anybody else, an unaware friend or a friendly predator? The underlying message in her mind- no matter what I said - was that she has to override her feelings,  because the person who asks her to do so is my friend and she really wants what he offers as a reward.

I realised that talking to my child was not enough. We had to talk to him too. Well, Alan had to. Part of me was still feeling "unreasonable", "over-reacting" , "hysterical", "crazy"-  feelings that are only too familiar to so many of us. While there was this deep inner clarity that my instincts were absolutely spot on and I would do whatever needed to be done to protect my child against becoming a future victim,  I was at the same time questioning myself: Was it my own messed up history getting in the way, was I blowing things way out of proportion?  I was about to break the big taboo - you don't imply somebody you know and socialise with is - even unwittingly - setting your child up for abuse. This is the  social void - we have learned to stay away from in our  circles of friends and acquaintances.

 Only in this case I did not have a choice as this was not about me anymore but about my children and my responsibility to prevent history from repeating itself.

I played out scenarios in my head  how I would take it if a friend came to me pointing out something they didn't agree with in the way I interacted with their children. I spoke them through with Alan. We decided, it would be OK. It might not be comfortable, but as parents we all want our children to be safe - so we would get through this as friends and fellow parents.

Alan took the leap.  He spoke to our friend privately. He explained how we felt. How we did not want to raise our children thinking it was acceptable for people to ask them for any form of physical contact as a trade-off for something they might really want. How we wanted to instill in them an unbreakable trust in their own feelings and boundaries. How we hoped he  would understand and respect our wishes not to trade kisses or hugs or any physical contact with our children when they want stuff from him.  The conversation stayed civil and calm. Both sides expressed concern about hurting the other one's feelings. Both said they were sorry.

A week later I was told by his wife, they  no longer want any contact with us.

After my initial shock, I do see how they might feel uncomfortable by what might or might not have been implied.  Despite our best intentions, they clearly felt they were accused rather than made aware of something . As far as our friendship goes - there was clearly no room for setting simple boundaries and finding common ground.

As sad as this makes me now, we will move on from here, with other friends - or at least with those who feel they don't have to pick a side ...

Weeks later, I am still struggling with the consequences. Knowing deep down that this was my only way forward I still get attacked by bouts of guilt, shame, anger and sadness. I feel relieved and liberated and also isolated and excluded from a circle of friends that has been part of my life for many years. I wake up at night thinking if and  how  to explain to my children why so and so  will not come to visit us anymore... why they won't see some of their friends anymore...

I felt and still feel a great deal of confusion in my clarity. Writing about it helps me make sense of what happened.

I don't think this is an isolated incident. As a community of parents and friends we don't talk enough about our behaviour towards our children. We don't have language to describe what makes us uncomfortable, worries or disturbs us. We hide behind polite conventions and don't allow room for discomfort, we don't challenge each other enough. It starts with keeping silent when we witness behaviour towards children that is borderline abusive. When somebody hits their child in a supermarket, we look the other way as it is "none of our business". When a friend tells me she disciplines her 4 year old, who still wets her pants by locking her in her room in her soaked clothes,  I silently disagree with her on so many levels, but I don't challenge her or even dare to inquire further.  We keep quiet as we are told it is not our place to interfere.... We don't speak out of politeness, out of fear of rocking the boat, because we might not be close enough, because it is not the time or place.  No matter the reason, we are too afraid to speak up.

The unspoken rule is: "you don't interfere with somebody else's parenting". Today I ask myself: should our friendships not be strong enough to hold us safely in our disagreements? Should our collective responsibility towards our children not be more important than being polite? Would I not benefit from somebody pointing out to me where I am potentially going wrong, so I can say: Oh crap, this didn't even occur to me - I will give it some thought...

So much of my behaviour towards my children is subconsciously motivated by old issues arising from my own childhood creating the many blind spots that are my parenting theme. We all have a subconscious parenting theme sometimes overriding our consciously chosen parenting style (my theme is: total control is important at all times...not pretty when it comes out!) Why not invite others, (who better than friends?) to - kindly and lovingly - help us unveil our blind spots?

By not keeping quiet anymore, I am not implying that my way of thinking is the ultimate truth. I am looking to challenge, to be challenged, to understand further and to be understood a little better. If at the end we agree to disagree but get our points across and respect each other's opinions - we can shift towards a better space, in which our children are more important than our unspoken rules. Where our children learn that it is OK to talk about things that make us feel uncomfortable, that we don't always have to agree in order to be friends, that we are allowed to question and challenge each other and sometimes change our minds and rules in the process. That we are all learning together. That we are no victims.

I don't want to alienate and judge people. I want to start a dialogue between friends and fellow parents in order to open up taboos and question outdated rules that have been put in place to serve adult agendas. If that means that some friendships come to an end, I will learn to live with that.
So here's a big sigh of letting go of the old and welcoming in the new - a sigh of sadness for what I have lost and a smile of gratitude for what I have. Good instincts, great friends,  a wonderful man in my corner of the world and the best children in the universe...

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