A letter to dads of daughters on the sexual misconduct epidemic
Each morning, after walking my 3 daughters to school, I take a deep breath before opening the newspaper. And there it is — another Hollywood producer, actor, politician, newspaper editor, professional comedian, pastor, and esteemed athletic coach or trainer is named. The next several lists are forthcoming and they will include employees and managers from boring companies that nobody has heard about.
This is not a post about revealing the names of distinguished scientists in academia who belong on that list. This is not a post about an antiquated legal system with a statute of limitations on sexual misconduct. This is not a post about my compassion and righteous indignation. This is not a post about the perspective of someone with my demographics (male, white, upper middle class, heterosexual, shot-putter). This is a letter for fathers of daughters. What can they do? How can they be of service to their daughters and peers?
Why does this article need to be written? Because I hear from too many moms about their husbands being unwilling to talk to their kids, or unable. If you scoff at this anecdote, let me share what scientists have learned.
Why don’t parents talk to their kids about sexual abuse?
A large number of parents revealed being uncomfortable discussing the subject (74%) and not wanting their kids to feel uncomfortable (54%). Nearly half (47%) feared that talking to children would lead them to lose their innocence. Other parents said broaching the subject never occurred to them (47–65%) or thought their children are too young to understand (42–44%). In one study, 36% of parents said sexual abuse was shameful and children should not tell anyone.
Over the past year, 49% of 8th to 12th grade kids could not remember a single good talk about sexual topics with their parents.
This is the story. Your friends are unlikely to share these attitudes on the sidelines of the next soccer game. Attitudes that you too are probably embarrassed to reveal publicly. Which is fine…if the lack of conversation did not reduce your kid’s knowledge and preparation for potential dangers.
Why am I focusing on fathers? Because in nearly every study, fathers tend to defer the discussion of sexual abuse prevention issues to mothers. And if fathers do broach the topic, discussions rarely rise above the risk of stranger danger even though perpetrators tend to be someone the kids/parents know. Many parents, especially fathers, do not appear to provide detailed sex education to children even on developmentally appropriate issues.
What can fathers do differently? Let me count the ways.
- Don’t be afraid to talk to your daughters about sex. You will not steal their innocence. If you want to maintain their innocence, protect them with sufficient knowledge about their bodies and sufficient skills to assert themselves. Get in the habit of asking for their permission to wash their bodies. Let them know that not even you should be touching their genitals without asking. Just remember to use age-appropriate language. There is nothing wrong with families using words such as private parts, boy and girl parts, bathing suit area, instead of biological terms. Some adults are offended by the mere utterance of penis and vagina with children; others are offended by adults using terms such as pee-pee and woo-woo. There is no concrete answer about the language. But do keep this in mind, when you are afraid of using actual body part terms, you implicitly communicate to your child that there is something to fear. My worry is that this could become an unintended stepping stone for kids being ashamed to talk about their bodies. You do not want your kids to experience shame about their bodies (or anything else).
- Encourage questions. Not answering a question is in itself an answer. A non-answer suggests that something is forbidden, shameful, or that you are lacking trust in your daughter. When answering questions, use simple words. Visual imagery is far more persuasive than abstract language. When we are uncomfortable or trying to sound intelligent, we default to complex terminology. This will not help your daughter or yourself. Be aware of the objectives behind anything being discussed. The goal is rarely to offer a comprehensive education. The goal is to provide sufficient information for your daughter to be knowledgeable and prepared for possible social threats. (this is about them, not you.)
- If you possess a number of taboo subjects, be careful about imposing them on your daughters. The presence of taboo topics limit conversation and education. Whatever you avoid becomes all the more intriguing, memorable, and often attractive. The irony is that your unwillingness to broach certain areas increases the probability that your kids will explore those same areas. Prepare yourself. Do not be embarrassed about carefully delineating words in advance. Consider drafting what you want to say on paper and practicing the verbals and non-verbals of the conversation — no differently than preparing for a job interview.
- None of us know what we are doing. None of us received sufficient parent training. What makes a great parent is the intention to learn how to be a good parent. Collect wisdom from a tribe of mentors. Communicate with experts. Peruse information in books and online. The conversation that you screw up today can be fixed by an apology and broaching the issue again. You are allowed re-dos. You will be surprised how forgiving kids can be.
- Remind your daughters to listen to their intuition over social pressure. Clarify that there is never a reason for anyone to physically touch them if they are uncomfortable. This sense of personal boundary holds for family members, friends, physicians, athletic trainers, and every other human being. This sense of personal boundary extends to non-sexual contact such as hugs, kisses, and a hand on the shoulder or neck. Only one person determines the rules of physical conduct and that is your daughter. Encourage them to be speak clearly and if needed, loudly. Their body is their body. Practice assertiveness training in your household and elsewhere. Since my daughters were four, I had them order food for themselves in restaurants just to give them practice vocalizing loudly and clearly to adults. I do not speak on behalf of my kids when they are next to me — I let them tell their own stories. I let them argue on their behalf when they think I am wrong (not always, but I try). These moments of assertiveness add up to skill gains. It will come in handy later when they have difficult conversations with sexual partners and unwanted sexual advances. Start early. You can never have too much training.
- Give your daughters permission to physically protect themselves. This might upset readers who embrace absolute beliefs concerning non-violence. Some situations require violence. I remind my daughters that if they ask someone not to touch them and it is clear that the person heard them and refuse to get off, they have my permission to push, punch, or kick to get them off. I have told them repeatedly that I will always defend them to any adult. Again, their bodies are theirs and nobody has any jurisdiction to physically touch them. If someone touches their breasts, vagina, or butt without consent, give them permission to do whatever is necessary to get them off. Gouging their eyes. Kicking them in the genitals as hard as possible. Smashing glass shared into their face. Function is the key. The goal is not to harm them. The goal is self-protection and safety. Be careful with your language in describing and granting them this autonomy. I want you to imagine a hypothetical scenario. My daughter walks into a classroom after school only to find that the teacher is holding your daughter down, pulling off her pants while trying to spread her legs open. What do I want my daughter to do? Anything possible to get the teacher off. Whether she screams or smashes an industrial sized stapler over his head is of little concern in this moment. I want both my daughter and yours to escape and be safe. Walking your daughter through age-appropriate hypothetical examples is a good idea. Just remember to include a variety of them, including a few situations where violence is an unacceptable first option. Do not leave the conversation with them thinking that you don’t actually want them to use physical violence unless direly necessary (direly necessary is often too late). You want them to leave the conversation feeling empowered.
- Share a recent story or two with your daughter concerning sexual abuse/assaults/harassment/misconduct. Not the sordid details but the basics. The motive is not fear mongering, which fathers are too good at. This is about sharing relevant real-life stories in an age-appropriate manner. We need to treat children fairly, letting them know what human nature is, not what we wish it to be. Adults are hard-wired to seek out opportunities to propagate their genes and mating motives can be aroused by the slightest environmental triggers. Because my daughters are soccer players, I have shared stories about elite female athletes who were abused by their coaches. This is relevant because in sports, boundaries can get loose between adults and children. The tribal nature of sports enhances the comfort and trust in teammates and coaches. The dark side is that a small subset of people abuse this comfort and trust. Be careful in your descriptions to ensure that they end up vigilant but not hypervigilant. The goal is for them to hope for the best but possess another gear if there is potential for the worst.
- Access to information is everything. This might be the most important lesson for fathers. How you respond when they reveal dark details of their lives determines whether you get information next time. What you say is far less important than the non-verbals. Did you intentionally put your smartphone in a drawer? Did you turn your eyes away, giggle, shake your head, or wave a hand when they shared details about how a teacher gave them a lecherous look, how a boy in the hallway snapped their bra strap, or a family friend kept trying to hug them despite their protests? Resist the temptation to dismiss their claims. The slightest infraction to your daughters is an invasion of their bodies, their livelihood. Do not use your own standards as a metric of what is socially acceptable. The best thing you can teach them is to honor themselves and speak their peace. Help them get a voice. Dismiss them, even slightly, and you will no longer be able to help them cope with the ambiguous social world that they are trying to navigate. You will be unable to help them because they will stop telling you what is happening. Listen. Be present. Shut up. Trust them. Worry about verifying later. When they reveal what is bothering them, you have one job — be their secure base. Nothing else matters. Being a dad is easy, this is when you get a chance to be a father that impacts them in a meaningful way. View this as an opportunity.
- In important ways, fathers matter more than mothers. Let’s be honest, it can be difficult to talk about sex with your daughter. I listen as fathers joke about loading their guns in preparation for their kids burgeoning sexuality. I observe fathers cringe, covering their eyes and ears, at the mere notion of their daughter’s sexuality. An emerging body of research suggests that girls with secure, supportive relationships with their fathers are less sexually active in their early teenage years and less likely to be coerced or “talked into” sex. The downstream consequences are that they have better mental health and relationships in adulthood and in general, more fulfilling lives.
What is surprising is not that fathers have such an impact on their daughters’ relationships with men, but that they generally have more impact than mothers do.
Despite feeling discomfort, fathers must begin communicating with their daughters about bodies, sexuality, and sexual misconduct. I wish I had the answers for altering a culture where a single instance of sexual abuse is one too many. As a father raising 3 daughters, I know that it can be hard to envision them as sexual beings. The truth is, they are sexual beings and this will only increase over their lifetime. I do not want to know the intimate details of my daughter’s sexual adventures when they become older teenagers and adults. But I do want them to have amazing sex lives. I want them to ask for what they want from their personally selected partners. I want them to get what they want. I want them to be safe and satisfied.
I do not know a single woman in my life who has not been sexually harassed or worse. Bad things happen. To mitigate the problem, they need allies. As fathers, our job is to be allies. Not just for our daughters but for every one of their peers. It is hard, never ending work. It requires us to be present. A gun will not do. 20-inch biceps will not do. We must be there from the beginning. The conversations and difficulties will never end. Turning points and significant events can draw the relationship closer, if willing. Start now and no matter how uncomfortable it gets, stay the course. Our daughters need us. Society needs us.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His latest book is The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self — not just your “good” self — drives success and fulfillment. For more, visit: toddkashdan.com