Make Little Girls’ Voices Carry

IMG_0587So I was an advocate for my daughter the other day. And how I acted made a difference in her experience of being heard, I believe.

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?”

She nodded.

“Did you tell the boy NO”?


“Why not?”

“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 and has been featured on, and Estelle can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, but is holding off on Instagram for now.

Image courtesy Estelle Sobel Erasmus.

  • This is a complicated story and I feel as if a big part of it (the part of that little boy) is being left out. Though you’re absolutely right in wanting to give your daughter a voice, as early as possible, and protect her from any situation that may be seen as a bullying situation, I do think that in this case you are overreacting.
    As women and mothers, part of our job is to teach our daughters to handle themselves in such situations. But, another part of our job is to also teach our sons to respect women without demonizing or ostracizing them in any way (which is something that is starting to happen to little boys in schools these days).
    Now, in the case of this little boy, when I first started to read your story I assumed the boy was bullying your daughter and in many ways, in our society, his actions can be seen as a form of bullying since we value our personal space and teach our children to build a sphere around themselves. But, later you mention that he is from another country and doesn’t speak English. This also means that he is from another culture which practices a whole different set of rules when it comes to “touching” and personal space. For example, the reason he kisses his friends may be because he is from a culture where kissing an acquaintance on the cheek or hand is perfectly acceptable and in some ways even expected. Regardless of all this, given his young age, it is not fair to him to be ostracized in such a manner at school, especially since he most likely does not fully understand just what it is that he is doing wrong. When we put the emotional aspects of this story aside, it looks more like a case of “boy wants to be friends with girl at the playground so he pulls her hair” type of scenario.
    Teach your daughter to speak up for herself but also teach her the right time to speak up. Not all little boys that kiss her hand are aiming to harm her so be careful of teaching her to see boys in such a light.

    • Debbie

      This *WAS* a bullying situation (at least by the definition is use at my kids’ schools)! He was doing something to her that he did not have permission to do and wouldn’t stop after being told to stop plus was unlikely to stop doing it until someone else intervened. That’s bullying!! Whether it’s touching, pulling hair, hitting, teasing, gossiping or ??? it’s bullying! If it wasn’t bullying, he would have stopped at the first “NO” but he didn’t!

      The mom did the right thing and got the bully to stop! That’s what we need to do! And we need the support of our schools to make sure it really does stop!!

      • Seth

        I agree that it was behavior that needed to be stopped, but when you call it “bullying” you just show you’ve never been bullied. Which, congratulations, because it’s terrible.

        • Debbie

          If you don’t mind Seth, please share your personal definition of bullying. As noted, I was using the definition that a well regarded school district in Texas uses. Personally that definition is good enough for me too!

    • Anna

      > ‘it looks more like a case of “boy wants to be friends with girl at the playground so he pulls her hair” type of scenario.’

      And that’s okay? I have a big problem with this attitude of “boys will be boys” and “he’s only being mean because he likes you”. What a terrible message to send little girls! That they should put up with boys touching them without their consent and / or hurting them and teasing them because “that’s just the way boys are” or “he doesn’t mean any harm” or “he likes you!”

      It doesn’t matter what the boy’s intent is. It doesn’t matter if he’s just trying to be friendly, or is doing it because he has a crush, or mimicking what happens in his culture and at home. It doesn’t matter if he is the sweetest boy in the world who wouldn’t hurt a fly. None of that matters – what matters is that no matter what he wants or how good his intentions are, he isn’t allowed to make anyone else feel uncomfortable or be mean to them, and if someone says no, he needs to stop and not do it again.

      Girls are taught from a young age to just play nice and ignore that they feel uncomfortable to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings. This isn’t okay!

      Good intentions don’t make the actions okay. As an adult woman if a guy puts his arm around me, hugs me, or tickles me who I am not good friends with, I will politely tell him to stop. It doesn’t matter if he’s just trying to flirt or be friends. It doesn’t matter if I let other male friends hug or tickle me and not him. I get to choose who touches me. How he feels about it – his intentions – don’t factor in when it comes to me feeling safe and comfortable. I can feel sympathetic and be friendly about my “no”, but it doesn’t change the fact that it needs to be said. I shouldn’t have to put up with people making me feel uncomfortable just to make *them* feel better. Sometimes it’s important to put yourself first! This should be taught from a young age.

      Nobody, young or old, should have to put up with being touched against their will just to spare the feelings of the toucher.

  • lexi

    I think the first no should have been more than enough. i am a rape survivor, and i can speak from experience about being touched when you dont want to be touched. you were an “advocate” when your daughter got hurt, that’s called parenting. what about the first time? or the second time? it was only when she was hurt that you paid attention. when the director said dont worry, YOU should have been the one to say no. that if she didnt like it, it shouldnt happen anymore. its HER body. In my opinion, you shouldnt have written this from the point of view that you did this amazing thing for your daughter. because the real message should be that the first NO should be enough.

  • Tru

    If the teacher said “We’re working with him,” that’s a sign that the school has become aware that this boy’s inappropriate touching behavior–even if it’s appropriate for some other culture, it’s not appropriate for this one–is a problem. This means that any mother telling her child she has a right to say no to that kind of touching is doing the right thing. Obviously, her child is not the only one this is problematic for.

  • The only bully that I see in this situation is the helicopter mom who has nothing better to do with herself than to become emotionally involved in the quarrels of 4 year olds.
    The kids are not bullying each other. They are simply 4 year olds who are learning to interact with each other in a social setting, for the first time. And, yes there will be quarrels.
    However, as the adult, throwing her weight around, coarsening the school staff into doing things her way, when they clearly told her they are handling it and ostracizing a 4 year old little boy for the sake of “giving her daughter a voice” is bullying.
    She was bullying when she took that little boy’s voice away for the sake of what she thinks is “giving her own daughter a voice”. But, the only thing she is doing is teaching her daughter to become the bully.
    What would you like the school to do with a 4 year old little boy, who has suddenly found himself in a new culture? A little boy who has no words to express himself (since he does not speak the language yet) and hence is forced to express himself and his feelings through gestures? Will you be happy if they slap a “beware of future rapist!” stamp on him and sit him in handcuffs in the corner so that he cannot come into contact with any of your precious ones? (And if you think this is going too far remember I am not the one who compared this 4 year old boy’s actions to those of the people involved in Steubenville)

    • @Paulin – I don’t think this is a helicopter parent situation by any means. It was addressed on more than one occasion. Her daughter CLEARLY was having issues, and shouldn’t have to deal with this at school. Period.
      If we don’t advocate for our children, WHO will?

    • Ali

      Oh so because he’s four he shouldn’t be taught to knock it the fuck off when someone says NO? When do you teach that then? When they’re 5? 15? 25? If he is INJURING OTHERS then he ABSOLUTELY needs to be called out on it and taught differently, REGARDLESS OF HIS AGE.

    • Ashley

      We need to start instilling in our kids that no means NO and when someone does not want your physical contact to stay away. It’s a matter of respect and good manners to respect boundaries.

    • Blaze

      The daughter said to her mum that she wanted her mum involved. That is no helicoptering, it would be if her daughter said she didn’t want her mum to call the school and not get involved. There is a difference and the little girl told him no already.

  • I appreciate this discussion. For those bandying the word about, you will notice that nowhere in the article did I use the word bullying. And yes I took the word of the director at first; but my daughter spoke up, thankfully and I will protect her from her boundaries being abused. I wish I had acted more quickly, but I’m acting now. The school is working with the little boy on his inappropriate behaviors, but for those who wondered he hasn’t been labeled a rapist. However, and this is very important, society must start early to give little girls’ voices; and it should never be the norm to sacrifice a child’s sense of safety to allow someone to assimilate; nor should standing up for your rights when someone is usurping them be called bullying. Understanding the power in words starts early, and if my being an advocate for my daughter is teaching her that, than that’s a good thing.

  • Millie

    I think this is an important post–for parents of boys and girls (and I have both).

    My son has had problems like this, getting notes from girls saying “So and so wants to have sex with you.” 3rd grade!

    The latest is apparently some kids in his class are making jokes about rape. I’m shocked and not entirely sure what to do about it except to try to explain what it means and how serious that is. I know he doesn’t completely understand it (and honestly, thank god he can’t “understand” it) because he’s brought it up a few times.

    And when I offered to let the school psychologist know to come in and talk to the class his response was “I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.”

    The woman who posted this is not exaggerating. The *is* how we get to Stubenville.

  • Absolutely fantastic post. Thank you Estelle for starting this important conversation, and for reminding us all to listen a little harder when our young kids are talking.

  • Denise

    I am a mother of three adult children (two men, one woman) and grandmother to two grand-daughters.

    I have a question:

    Why are young parents so afraid to parent now? When my children were growing up, this would have been a non-issue. Most parents in this situation would have talked not only to the school, but to the parents of the offending child, too… and in person, face to face. Something to the effect of, “if you don’t see to it that your kid leaves my kid alone, YOU, the parent, are going to have an issue on your hands that is going to be coming from ME, the parent.”

    There’s a reason why parents are also called guardians.

    Teachers, coaches, counselors, daycare workers, etc. are not responsible for your children. They are not the guardians of your children. YOU are. If someone hurts your child, *it is correct for you to deal with remedying the situation calmly, swiftly and directly*…and preferably, in person, with your own voice, face to face. And let your children be aware of how you do this. THIS is how your children learn to speak for themselves.

    Paulin, please get a grip… and stop extrapolating. Your input here is indicative of the type of “parenting discussion” that’s going on in this society that has undermined parents confidence to act quickly and with courage on their children’s behalf. The boy hurt her daughter. Daughter expressed that she wanted help from her mother to deal with this situation. Not much to talk about there. Just a situation which needs to be stopped… by the parent. It’s not rocket (or should I say, helicopter) science.

    Estelle, thank you for having the courage to speak up on behalf of your daughter… thank you for truly being her guardian in this instance. She now has, permanently stored in her psyche, an example of what it is to be a woman who is not afraid to speak up in the face of wrongdoing. She now has an example of owning a “voice”… that she not only has the lifelong responsibility to use correctly on her own behalf, but someday on behalf of her own children, should she choose to to become a parent.

    Thank you also, for being an example to other confused young parents by writing this article. Your actions here are not indicative of helicopter parenting, or bullying, or any other trendy negative buzz words aimed at helping parents question their own authority and “voice” as a parent!

    Your actions here are simply an example of basic effective parenting… an example of true guardianship and protection of your child. The only “wrongdoing” you committed here is that you wrote about exercising your rightful parental authority in a society that is being increasingly structured to give you as little parental authority as possible. To which I say, keep going with that!

    And thank you, Millie… yes, this is EXACTLY how we get to Stubenville. In fact, that this article was even written in the first place, and that there is any type of divisive discussion about it at all, is exactly why we are all ALREADY living in the reality of Stubenville.

  • Joan Haskins

    I would have done the same thing for my daughter. Women need to find their voices when they are still little girls.

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