It was the dreaded phone call.
The Vice Principal at our son's school called to tell us Riley had gotten in trouble for pulling on a female classmate's pants. He hadn't pulled them down, mind you, but her parents were very upset when she told them the story, and they brought it directly to the principal the next day.
I'll be honest -- I panicked. I started to get that same feeling I get when I'm ready to go off on someone in ALL CAPS IN A FACEBOOK COMMENT THREAD.
My son? Sexually harassing a poor girl in his class?! How dare he! This is just like a boy -- to think he can do whatever he wants to a girl's body and get away with it.
I know this feeling well. It's a disproportionate reaction (sometimes called "a trigger," but now that word has been used in so many bizarre ways that I try to avoid it). The fact is, I was a raised as a girl. I'm transgender and now live as a man, but I still have deep and powerful wounds around boys and bodies, and have had many men throughout my life think that my body was their property. And I knew that if I was the one to deal with the whole pulling-on-a-girl's-pants situation, I would end up yelling at Riley, and the first seeds of shame around sex and sexuality could be planted in him.
As I felt that all-caps feeling, I knew I had to manage my shit. I delegated the situation to my partner Biff, who doesn't have the same triggers and traumas around boundaries that I do. "I'm just not going to handle this well, for Riley or the school, so I need you to talk to him and deal with the Vice Principal," I said. Biff seemed confused, but he picked up the mantle, talked with Riley, and managed the school staff.
While that was happening, I looked for the learning. I worked hard to interrogate my own experiences around bodies and broken boundaries. Where did that trauma come from? For some, it may be easy to identify the root of a disproportionate reaction. But for me, it took some work.
It took remembering the boys on the playground taunting me for my big feet and flat chest. The popular boy I had a crush on in middle school, who asked me to the spring dance as a joke, then told everyone (ha ha). The constant gaze on my body, all the way until the day I stopped looking like a girl. The man who followed me across three bus transfers and then exposed his erection when he finally got me alone in the back row where no one else was around. The high school boyfriend who pressured me relentlessly to have sex with him, and never noticed that I didn't really like any of the intimate things we were already doing.
The feeling that still haunts me to this day -- that I'm not able to say I don't like what's happening to me, and can we please do something else.
Those little things, none of which my non-trans partner understands, have all added up to big things. And when I think my little boy might be acting out some of those same dynamics... I freak out.
I truly needed to step back and remind myself that Riley is not the male gaze. He's not rape culture. He's not a flasher. He's just a kid who's still learning not to tickle other kids if they tell him to stop, not to get hyper and pull on a girl's pants, and not to touch other kids' butts because he thinks it's funny. This one situation is not symbolic for everything that's ever happened to me, and it's my job as a parent to approach his mistakes for what they are -- mistakes.
Then I took some deep fucking breaths. It's not easy for me to practice mindfulness, but it was critical in this situation so I didn't make a mess of things. I needed to remind myself that every situation is not only a chance for him to grow, but for me to learn about myself.
In this situation, here were my #ParentingGoals:
- Raise a son who respects everyone's bodies and boundaries... and ESPECIALLY those of women.
- Raise a son who understands that he will always have relatively more power than most women around him.
- Raise a son who listens, every time, when someone tells him not to touch them.
- Raise a son who feels empowered about his sexuality, not ashamed of it.
- Build a relationship with my son where he feels he can bring issues, questions, and mistakes to me, trusting that I will listen to him and help him work through them -- not wig out and make him feel bad.
Tips and Tricks:
- Manage your shit. I'm not telling you to "get over" your traumas. I'm suggesting that you get through them. Get the support you need to figure out where your triggers come from, unpack them, and find healing. Don't surround yourself with people who encourage you to wallow and sit in your wounds-- find those who see those hurts, and want to help you place them in the broader context of your life. The newest data on neuroscience and trauma tells us that when we are reminded of our traumas, our capacity for empathy dwindles to almost zero. If you stay stuck in your trauma, your ability to empathize with your child is gone. And you're going to need empathy if you're going to be a great parent.
- Delegate. If a parenting situation is bringing up big things in you, find someone else to deal with it. It might be a partner, a teacher, or any other adult in your kid's life. Biff definitely didn't understand why I was asking him to handle this situation, but he heard that I wasn't able to, and stepped in immediately. Hopefully you have someone(s) in your life who can do the same. A simple, "You know, I'm feeling a little too upset about this to really be productive right now. Would you mind talking with her about what she did?" might work. If all I'm going to be able to do is yell and make my kid feel like shit, I'm not the right person to engage with him.
Side note: I use this same tactic with all anti-racism or other anti-oppression work I do. The goal of that work, for me, is to undo white supremacy and homophobia in the world and in individuals. If/when I'm so upset by something that I'm not able to communicate in a way that is effective enough to drive us toward that goal (like, if I'm going to lose my shit or respond in all-caps), I ask someone else to step in. Acting out of my trauma will never help reach the goal of ending oppression. My basic question is always, "Can I deal with this in a way that is driving us towards a better world?" and if the answer is yes -- if I think I can engage in a productive way, with love and empathy -- I move in. But if the answer is no, and I know I'm going to react and not respond, I will be completely counter-productive and legitimately harmful...so I ask someone else to step in and handle it.
- Look for the learning. Begin to identify when your kid has pushed a button, and use it as an opportunity to grapple with your shit. I hate it when one of my kids stumbles onto something painful in me. Hate it. But if I'm able to pick up the rock of discomfort and look under it, usually there is something gross and disgusting that has been waiting to see the light. And if given enough light, it usually shrivels and dies. Only then am I able to say, "Riley -- what you did is a big deal, because we do live in a world where boys sometimes think they can touch girls however they want. So it's really important that no matter how much fun it might seem, you always listen when a girl tells you she doesn't like what you're doing. Do you understand?" And then I'm able to have a developmentally-appropriate conversation about him that doesn't start with an accusation of him "contributing to rape culture." We will totally get there with him -- just not at age eight.
- Practice mindfulness. Eek! I'm scared to even write this. I'm always worried about getting too touchy-feely, and I consider myself to be science- and evidence-based in my life and in my parenting. Well, it turns out that meditation, or other mindfulness practices, are singularly successful in building empathy. The deep breaths I take when I'm feeling reactive -- that's mindfulness. Anger is the only emotion that doesn't require breath. Joy and sadness both need breath to survive, and I'd rather be sad and vulnerable than angry. I struggle quite a bit with attention and focus, so traditional meditation has been hard for me (I get bored and my mind wanders and I don't seem to be able to master it, even after trying many times). So I actually use a meditation app for kids, called Smiling Mind. The kids and I do it together, and the five-minute guided exercises (read by a sexy-sounding Australian) work great for me AND the kids. Their energy becomes much more focused, as does mine. This type of work will help you slowly identify (and eventually master) your reactions. You'll soon be able to notice when you're having a disproportionate reaction to something, which is all you need to stop yourself from reacting... and start responding instead. I imagine that one day I won't have those reactions at all (it's something I strive for), but I feel peaceful about where I am now. I can at least see that a reaction is happening, and ask for help managing it. I think that consciously breathing, and noticing that I'm starting to go down the all-caps road, is enough for me... for now.
TL;DR: Here are the main things to keep in mind when dealing with disproportionate reactions and your kids.
Manage your traumas.
Delegate, if possible.
Look for the learning.