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Me Too, Now What? – What Our Children Need to Learn today
Lynnette Li

Lynnette Li

Columnist, Repurposing Family Culture at the Parent Voice, Magazine
Lynnette Li is a performing artist, music teacher, and part-time-stay-at-home mom. Read more under 'Columnists'.
Lynnette Li

Latest posts by Lynnette Li (see all)

These past few weeks, I read story after story, bravely posted both by close friends and people I don’t know, sharing experiences with sexual harassment and assault. I thought about the incidents in my own life that left me feeling physically or emotionally violated. I wanted to be brave and share my stories too. I wanted to help demonstrate the magnitude of this problem in our culture. But I struggled to do that.

I learned that a man cannot control his sexual desires, and that it’s a woman’s responsibility to keep his hands and body off hers. Click To Tweet

I reflected upon the messages I received from the Chinese and evangelical Christian cultures that grew me. I learned that women should dress modestly, and act modestly. That a man cannot control his sexual desires, and that it’s a woman’s responsibility to keep his hands and body off hers. That sexual desire is shameful, and not something I should talk about. I also received messages that it’s normal for others to judge and comment on my appearance to my face. That it’s acceptable for men to have several sexual partners but unacceptable for women to have a sexual history. And that I should never say or do anything that would embarrass myself or my family.

I feared that admitting “me too” would be shameful, that acknowledging my experiences would admit my own wrongdoing. Click To Tweet

These deeply ingrained messages not only made me struggle to talk about my own experiences but also served to normalize my experiences with sexual harassment and assault in the first place. I saw these incidents as an unavoidable part of life and believed I was to blame for whatever violation I felt. I feared that admitting “me too” would be shameful, that acknowledging my experiences would admit my own wrongdoing.

I hope we can all examine our own cultures more closely, to identify the messages we received that perpetuate the normalization of sexual harassment and assault and to call these messages out.

I’ve come to view these messages from my upbringing as problematic and damaging. But I’m confident that similar messages exist outside my cultures as well. I hope we can all examine our own cultures more closely, to identify the messages we received that perpetuate the normalization of sexual harassment and assault, and to call these messages out. A sexual predator like Harvey Weinstein isn’t a random island of evil. Our collective culture created him; we all, and not just men, made it okay for him to exist. When over half the Electoral College listens to a recording of a presidential candidate bragging about sexual assault and then proceeds to vote that person into the Oval Office, the culture of sexual harassment and assault is not only normalized, it’s celebrated.

Our collective culture created sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein. Click To Tweet

Though the current state of affairs seems dire, I have been inspired these past few weeks by how many people committed to making some sort of change. There were men who said they would listen more closely, who apologized, who asked how they could become better allies. There were parents who said they would raise their kids differently; who said they’d teach their kids about consent, and teach their sons to respect women. Still others committed to fighting the perpetrators, to making sure justice is served. As we bear witness to multitudes of people coming forward with troubling stories of sexual harassment and assault, I was struck by how many #metoo stories began in childhood. It is the children of those stories, and my current role as a mother of young children, that shaped my personal next step. I’d like to share a proposal now. 

As we bear witness to multitudes of people coming forward with troubling stories of sexual harassment and assault, I was struck by how many #metoo stories began in childhood.

Just as examining the messaging within my childhood cultures proved valuable, so too might examining the messages the youngest members of our society – children ages 0 to 3 – receive within mainstream American culture today. As I took a closer look at those messages, many of them struck me as having the potential to perpetuate this culture of normalized sexual harassment and assault. Now, at times, I sense cynicism about whether children under the age of 3 are really capable of understanding messages at all. I fear people think I’m taking things too seriously. Do we really remember much from this period in our lives? Does it really matter what messages babies and toddlers receive?

It does.

 

Little Girl Me Too


Consider that in those first three years, the brain undergoes its most rapid development over the course of a person’s life. It’s during this time that we learn what to expect from our interactions with other people. We need to change the messages we’re sending now.

My own parenting is strongly influenced by the teachings of Magda Gerber, who founded Resources for Infant Educarers®, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of care for infants and toddlers. Her philosophy was rooted in the belief that infants are born as whole human beings capable of understanding and deserving of respect. While thinking about how to counter the problematic messaging our children receive, I have Magda’s voice in my ear.

While there are likely many more, for the purposes of this piece, I’ll focus on three problematic messages children receive in early childhood that I believe have the potential to be most damaging. I’ll also offer some ideas for how to counter them.

Problematic Message 1:

People can do whatever they want to your body, whenever they want to. 

Babies must rely on adults for a lot of things: clothing, bathing, diaper changing, feeding, and safety. These are some of the most vulnerable moments in the course of a person’s life. We have our babies’ best interests in mind, and we would never intentionally convey that their bodies are not their own. But when we manipulate their bodies to change their clothes and diapers, when we remove their clothing to give them a bath, when we put food in their mouths and move them from one place to another without explanation, eye contact, or warning, they receive the message that they live in a world where adults can do whatever they want to their bodies.


In most loving households, children will learn at some point that their bodies belong to them. This often happens long after they begin to speak. I remember watching a Winnie the Pooh special on the Disney Channel, where a life-sized person dressed as Pooh told me, “No one has a right to touch your body but you.” I think I was 5 or 6 years old. It’s a vivid memory because, at the time, it was a new message to me.

In the #metoo stories this past month, there were so many women who recounted being violated as children, at a time when they didn’t have a strong sense that their bodies were their own. We need a different message.

A New Message:

Your body is your own, and you can expect that people will interact with your body respectfully.

Through our tone of voice, our facial expressions, the way we touch them, and the way we acknowledge them, they can receive the message that we respect their bodies.

To send this new message, we can speak to our babies using full sentences and a rich vocabulary, with the awareness they can understand so much besides the specific words we are using. Through our tone of voice, our facial expressions, the way we touch them, and the way we acknowledge them, they can receive the message that we respect their bodies. When my son was a baby, I paused before picking him up. I looked him in the eye and said gently, “Hi, it’s me, mama, I’m going to pick you up now.” While changing my daughter’s clothes, I spoke to her about what I was doing. “I’m going to take off your shirt now, can you help me pull your arms out of the sleeves?” My communication wasn’t always perfect. Sometimes I rushed, sometimes I didn’t explain, but on the whole, the acts of bathing, changing, and feeding usually felt like respectful, collaborative activities.

As babies, long before they had access to speech, both of my children demonstrated that they understood my words by turning toward me, making eye contact, vocalizing, and moving their bodies to cooperate with me. They came to be wary of people who didn’t speak to them with respectful voices or who tried to pick them up or touch them without asking or earning their trust. I believe this is because they received early messaging that they should expect that people would interact with their bodies respectfully.


 

 

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Lynnette Li is a performing artist, music teacher, and part-time-stay-at-home mom. Read more under ‘Columnists’.

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