This may seem like a funny concept seeing as many children have absolutely no problem saying NO to broccoli, peas and bedtime. However, I am referring to the ability to say no in situations where their boundaries are overstepped, in both smalls ways and in big ways…like sexual or other even other forms of abuse. In fact saying no at home is very linked to being able to say no to an inappropriate adult.
I have recently been presenting a workshop with women focussed on rape prevention. A big focus in this workshop is the ability to be firm and assertive when a boundary is violated….after all the majority of rapes are perpetrated by men known to the victim and very often these men start with a kind of ‘interviewing’ process where they test womens’ boundaries. However, here’s the thing…all the women I have witnessed having to exercise assertiveness have really battled. The statement always comes up “But it feels so aggressive”, or “it feels so rude”. Society tends to expect women to be polite and to some degree to comply. Be honest with yourself – this is deeply entrenched at a subconcious and often even conscious level. Women will often giggle uncomfortably, make a joke, move away or, even worse, apologise as if it is THEIR OWN FAULT, when a boundary is violated by a man in particular and this can be as simple as someone moving into their personal space or more overt such as being on the receiving end of lewd comments.
In the workshop this tends to lead to a discussion about our children and it is mentioned how we tend to let our boys be louder, more aggressive and more confrontational “because that is just what boys do”. However, when our girls do these things it makes us uncomfortable and we tend to nip it in the bud (after all we don’t want our roses to be seen as thistles!). However, it is not always this generalised. In many cases the more anxious and controlling moms (and let’s face it we can all be that mom at times) will put an end to any form of a boy or girl loudly shouting or hitting or, God forbid, standing up to Mom.
Let’s face it – if a child, particularly a girl, is taught that it is bad to be confrontational, loud or to stand up for the self at home then why on earth would that child do that with a complete stranger?! If the message is to comply, be obedient and be quiet with adults then the child is pretty likely to do just those things with an adult who orders that child to undress or to do something that makes him/her a little uncomfortable. This is particularly the case when there is a lot of corporal punishment at home (and especially if it is out of proportion to the ‘crime’), giving the message that it is OK for an adult to lay hands on you and make you uncomfortable even if you do not like it.
So how do we remedy this? It is not easy. After all children do need to have boundaries and limits set. In fact these actually help children to feel safe and certain about where they stand. However, if the boundaries and limits are very rigid and allow no room for a child to express their own needs and desires, and if there is no room for a discussion or negotiation around these limits and boundaries then it is not realistic to believe that the child will feel she/he has a right to say no to something that he does not like, including something sexually inappropriate. Allow your child to have choices where there is room for choices e.g. what to eat for supper (giving a couple of health choices), what to wear, what to do today. If your child appears deeply upset about something you have insisted upon give them room for discussion and try to see it from their point of view (is your own need for control or you own anxiety preventing you from seeing that your child has needs and desires that may be different from yours and that may not actually be a threat to you, your child or a general sense of ‘being in control’?)
If this sounds really difficult to do then start in really small ways like two different options for supper so they can say no to something. And, of course, teach your child how to say no politely but don’t get too hung up on it either! Yesterday, I found myself telling my daughter, “I know you are angry but you must still be polite”(!!) That right there is the message we give our girls! It’s not right in that anger is a protective emotion yet politeness causes us to often compromise ourselves and our need to protect ourselves. Instead, I am going to be focussing on teaching her how to be assertive – firm about her needs in a respectful way. If her boundaries are still being pushed then anger is appropriate.
So, it’s about balance. Establish what your hard and fast limits are, related to safety, respect and truth perhaps. The rest of the time look for opportunities for a child to make some choices or for some form of negotiation and self-expression to take place. This may push your own buttons around control issues!
The crux of all of this is self-empowerment and it is generally only the self-empowered children who tend to be be able to say NO and to come home and tell Mom or Dad what happened. In fact, in many cases a potential abuser will not approach such children in the first place. There is no way a child will say no and then report back if the child is worried that they will get into trouble for saying no/being rude or, God forbid, standing up for her/him self.
To add to this in our house we have a rule that if you are tickling, hurting or upsetting someone and they indicate that it is enough you have to stop immediately. That no has to be respected. This is to teach my daugther that she is allowed to say no if something makes her sore or uncomfortable and to teach my son that he has to be aware of his power and be very respectful of the limits of others.
And one last thing….the most important no your child be allowed is to say no to hugging Uncle Fred from next door or even Grandpa or Mom if they do not want to. Trust and honour your childrens’ boundaries.