About a month ago, my nearly four-year-old daughter came home from preschool telling me about a boy, who touched her on the nose and kissed her hand. She didn’t like it.
“He kissed my hand mommy and touched my nose, and I said no,” she told me. She also told me that he was from another country and didn’t speak English yet.
Aside from thinking, oh, how sweet that a little boy is showing his appreciation for my daughter by employing the courtly tradition of hand-kissing, I thought nothing more about it. That is, until she mentioned it to me again, when I went to pick her up at school.
“He kissed my hand mommy and touched my nose, and I said no,” she repeated when I greeted her at the door. The director of the school happened to be there.
“He kissed her hand and touched her nose, and she didn’t like it,” I told the director, who I should mention, I like very much, and does a good job.
“Oh, he is new to the school, and is affectionate, but he wouldn’t hurt a fly, he’s so sweet,” was her calm response.
I told my daughter again, “Just tell him no. No touching, and tell the teacher.”
Then, I moved on and didn’t think twice about it.
Until last week. Last week, my daughter again mentioned this boy’s name and said he was touching and poking her. Thinking, “Oh, the teacher said it was no big deal,” I didn’t make a fuss. Then she said this.
“Mommy, you have to get me Band-Aids. Five Band-Aids. Because (boy’s name) hit me and touched me and poked my face and hurt me.”
Now, she had my full attention (finally).
“When did this happen?” asked.
“While the teachers were cleaning the tables.”
“Did you tell the teacher?”
“Did you tell the boy NO”?
“Because he won’t stop. He won’t stop touching me. He’ll never stop.”
“Do you want me to call the teacher?”
“Yes, I do, mommy.”
So I called the teacher and explained the situation. I was calm and collected, until the teacher said, “I wasn’t aware of this; she didn’t tell me, but this boy likes to be affectionate with his friends. He likes to touch friends but he’s harmless.”
It was then that I felt the fire fill my soul.
I responded as my daughter’s advocate. The advocate she wanted and needed, and the advocate all mothers must be for their daughters. To give them the voices they need.
So here’s what I said to the very sweet teacher:
“I don’t care that this boy ‘wouldn’t hurt a fly,’ and likes to touch his friends. It is hurting my daughter because when a person’s experience is invalidated or ignored it teaches them to be victims. I will not allow that to happen.”
The teacher was silent, and I continued.
“My daughter’s boundaries are being abused, and if nobody does anything, including the teachers, than they are complicit in it, and I won’t allow that.”
Then, I put my daughter on the phone with the teacher and the teacher told her to please tell a teacher if this happens again with him or anyone, and to tell the person “no.”
I said, “The teacher will make sure you are protected, but you have to speak up.”
The teacher suggested to me that my daughter and the child be separated. I said, yes, but only if my daughter is not made to feel uncomfortable. That’s when I learned that the child was already separated from some of his “friends” during circle time. The teacher said, “We’re working with him.” My response? “That’s not my problem, and it will not become my daughter’s problem either.”
So maybe some people believe the boy is sweet and he wouldn’t hurt a fly. But he did hurt my daughter. He hurt her by making her think it was OK for him to broach her boundaries, touch her and that everybody was complicit in it (he’s so harmless), so nothing would happen to him, so why even bother speaking up. That’s the message my daughter received.
And that? That is just not acceptable!! That’s how you get to a Steubenville. Because what happens when boundaries are ignored; when a girl speaks up and is ignored? What happens is that society is teaching her that her voice won’t be heard. And I am determined that will NOT be my daughter’s experience. Not while I can give her the voice she needs, and the power to use it.
And now I know something else. Our daughters must start having a voice that is heard early. Like in preschool.
If we wait for a person like Sheryl Sandberg to tell them to “lean in” and ask for their rightful place at the table when our daughter’s are in their 20s, or even in their teens, well, then it is just too late.
How can we give girls a voice so they are not made to feel like they can’t be heard? The more I see and hear and the more Steubenvilles there are, the more I believe that our earliest work of empowerment needs to start with young girls, not teenagers, not young women, but young girls.
Contributor Estelle Sobel Erasmus is an award-winning journalist and former magazine editor-in-chief who is on the Board of Directors of the national non-profit Mothers & More, a support, education and advocacy organization for mothers which emphasizes the value of a mother’s work whether paid or unpaid.
Her writing was recently featured in the anthology, What Do Mothers Need? Motherhood Activists and Scholars Speak Out on Maternal Empowerment for the 21st Century (Demeter Press, 2013) and in the The BlogHer Voices of the Year: 2012 book for her article, “We Changed the Conversation,” for which she was named a 2012 BlogHer Voice of the Year. Estelle was a 2012 cast member in the first ever Listen to Your Mother NYC production; and is a 2012 Circle of Moms Top 10 Winner for Best Family Blog by a Mom.
Estelle chronicles her often humorous, sometimes serious but always transformative journey through motherhood, marriage and midlife on her blog, Musings on Motherhood and Midlife. She also writes a column about women making a difference for examiner.com and has been featured on Kveller.com, Circleofmoms.com and Mamapedia.com. Estelle can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, but is holding off on Instagram for now.
Image courtesy Estelle Sobel Erasmus.