By Estelle Sobel Erasmus
So 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 pre-school 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 later that week, 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 bandaids. Five bandaids. 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?” I 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 fairly calm , until the teacher said, “I wasn’t aware that this was happening; 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 and touch her and that everybody was ok with it (he’s so harmless), and 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 pre-school.
If we wait for a person like Sheryl Sandburg 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’s just too late.
How can we continue to 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 Steubenville’s 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.