The sexual harassment and assault allegations against powerful men like Harvey Weinstein have triggered an outpouring of painful personal stories from women – and some men – around the world. Collectively, their voices paint a disturbing picture of widespread violation of the most personal of boundaries.
As a mentor and advocate of girls ages eight to 18, I am concerned that many girls and young women do not realize how powerful their own voices can be, or how vital it is that they speak up in the face of unwanted stares, sexual touching or worse.
Typically, the girls I work with exude a great deal of kindness, care and concern for others. Their orientation toward politeness can also lead them to be "too nice," even pushovers, during situations in which asserting their rights and boundaries would be more appropriate.
Parents are understandably frightened by the astonishing statistics about the prevalence of sexual assault, from campus rape to online grooming by predators to sex trafficking. One in every four North American women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime. In Canada, only six of every 100 sexual-assault incidents are reported to the police. Yet there are preventive and proactive measures parents can take to prepare and protect their girls from unwanted advances, now and as they become women.
Teach her to pay attention
Girls can learn a lot by watching what's going on around them, and acknowledging what they see. By trusting their powers of observation, they can start to discern between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. Ask her about various scenarios. How would she react to a group of boys playing soccer who catcall to her or to a stranger behind her in the movie lineup who lightly grazes her backside? By preparing her to yell, "That's not appropriate!" and to smack a hand away, if needed, she'll feel new confidence.
Give her opportunities to make her own choices
Preteen girls yearn to belong and, as a result, they tend to be congenial people-pleasers. Help her practice saying "no." This could mean allowing her the freedom to turn down a particular dinner selection in favour of an (equally healthy) option that she prefers. If she opts out of helping her little brother with his homework, ask her what task she will choose to do instead. The point is not to encourage defiance, but rather to ensure that she is aware of her own needs and preferences when making choices. As she gets older, she will use this awareness again and again – when her boss repeatedly asks her to stay late after work or when a friend takes too many liberties with her time and generosity.
Help her set boundaries by using a visual aid
The concept of personal boundaries may seem abstract to a young girl, but you can use a tangible visual aid, such as a hula hoop, to illustrate the concept for her. Place the hoop on the floor and have her stand in the centre, imagining that the ring around her is the perimeter of her personal boundary. Invite her to decide who and what she will allow into her hula hoop. She may say that people who are kind and who share are welcome within her hula hoop. Conversely, she might want to keep girls who put her down or constantly compare themselves to her outside the boundary of her hoop. As she grows, you will no longer need the hula hoop, but you can keep the conversation going about what she will say "yes" to and what she will say "no" to.
When you invite girls to assert themselves when they feel wronged, most will look at you like you are out of your mind. This is because girls equate assertiveness with meanness, and many will avoid it at all costs because fitting in can feel more important to her than embracing her rights. The best way to help her embody the feeling of being assertive is through role-playing. Choose a relevant situation, such as asking her teacher for an extension on a science project. Encourage her to practise standing up straight, maintaining direct eye contact and using confident language as she makes her request. Help her find the right words without cracking a smile, apologizing or shifting awkwardly. With you, she can feel safe to "iron out the wrinkles." When it's time for her to speak up, she will be ready.
During a girl's preteen years, her greatest challenges may be school deadlines and friendships, but later in life she will face many threats and challenging circumstances, as we all do. Girls need to learn early on that although their voices may be small, they can make them heard.
Lindsay Sealey is the author of Growing Strong Girls: Practical Tools to Cultivate Connection in the Preteen Years. She is also the founder and chief executive of Bold New Girls and lives in Vancouver.