As I started cooking dinner tonight, with tongs in one hand and the other free to flick through Facebook in between turning and stirring the food cooking away on the stove I saw a news story that a friend shared and commented on. The story is being shared tonight by many parents; on their wall, in groups, and I expect at after school activities where the parents congregate on the benches.
The news is about how two 12 year old boys have been charged with raping a six year old girl. I’ll let that sink in…
So far I’ve seen comments about how children are becoming sexually active earlier these days, others saying that these boys will get off with little to no punishment because of their age, but, as you would expect, the most common comment and what I thought when I first saw the headline; how sad, scary, heartbreaking and gut-wrenching an experience it must have been for that young girl.
Ever since the James Bulger murder back in February 1993, we’ve known that kids can be cruel. Think about this; that was 23 years ago. Almost a quarter of a decade ago. That was the crime where the two ten year old boys murdered the two year old in England. At the time that it happened I was still a teenager myself, albeit one that could have been charged as an adult seeing that I was a couple of months away from my 19th birthday. At that age I was well aware of what was right and what was wrong, but I wonder if I knew about these things when I was the age of those boys, or the age of the boys in the breaking news story today.
Rewind seven years before that case and the murder that shocked the nation occurred in February 1986 within the local city government area where I grew up and still live today. That was the brutal rape and murder of former beauty queen and model Anita Cobby. Although it happened two months before my twelfth birthday, I remember the widespread news attention like it was yesterday. I remember it being discussed at home. I remember it being discussed at school. And as her body was found dumped just over three kilometres as the crow flies away from my family home, it was being discussed by friends around the neighbourhood.
A few months after that, in August 1986, nine year old Samantha Knight went missing not far from Bondi Beach in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. I can still remember seeing her distraught mother on the news and wondered why people did bad things to other people when clearly the results of these crimes were people being hurt and/or killed, and those family members left behind had the face the horrors of losing a loved one. That alone made me know that I could never do that to anyone.
My father has always been an avid viewer of the news. Growing up in my household with only one television for so long and a father who owned the right to watch he wanted, most evenings meant that we had the nightly news from 6pm for 30 minutes, followed by A Current Affair straight after that before he’d switch over to another channel at 7pm Terry Willisee Tonight or Hinch, whichever had the best stories advertised.
After that it was over to the ABC where he’d watch The 7:30 Report followed by Four Corners and much later, Lateline. It was often an onslaught of news and current affairs from 6pm until 8:30pm and depending on the night, if other news, documentaries or current affairs shows were on, it was watch that or hang out in your room reading or playing with your toys.
From a young age I can remember hearing the word rape on these shows. Although many people think that post September 11 the news seems to be more graphic and harrowing, I think it’s been like that for longer than we care to remember.
I don’t ever remember my parents telling me that rape was wrong. As a family that was not religious and didn’t attend church or Sunday school, we weren’t taught those morals that religious folk keep telling me they’re taught by their religious leaders. (Yes, and even those who attended those institutions that are now under investigation for their rampant hike abuse claim that they got taught their morals from the leaders who are now under investigation.)
In the absence of being taught that rape is wrong by my parents, teachers or religious leaders, I know that growing up in a household where the consequences of rape, murder, domestic violence and the impact on the victims and their families was being shown on my television each and every night was probably what gave me the lesson in decency.
I know that we often focus on how the victims could have protected themselves in many of the heavily publicised rape cases such as the Brock Turner rape case in the United States. It goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway;
It. Is. Not. The. Victim’s. Fault.
Sure we can teach our six year old girls to make sure that no one touches them in their “special places” as you see so many parenting advice columnists state. I know I’m not the first to say it, and I won’t be the last, but the education needs to be on both sides of the fence; sure no one should let anyone touch them where they shouldn’t or do not want to be touched, but we need to make sure that we are teaching our children to keep their hands to themselves.
It’s obviously not just about sexual assault; we don’t hit, we don’t bite, we don’t tickle, we don’t fight. We don’t kiss, we don’t lick, we don’t pull, we don’t kick. I didn’t mean to make a rhyme as I started writing that sentence, but we probably could do with a slogan like that to teach our kids about not touching or hurting anyone.
My parenting style is much like some of the great fathers I grew up watching when my dad actually let me watch something other than news or current affairs. Those sitcoms dads such as Danny Tanner, Ward Cleaver, Mike Brady, Howard Cunningham, Tony Micelli, Jason Seaver, Steven Keaton, and although both the actors who played the next two brilliant television dads could have taken a leaf out of their respective character’s book, Heathcliff “Cliff” Huxtable and Martin Kelly. These dads spoke to their children towards the end of many episodes, often suggesting that they put themselves in the shoes of their victim, if their child was being disciplined for bullying or playing a prank, or even in the shoes of their antagonist for empathy, sympathy or merely educational purposes.
I often find myself telling my own boys “how would you like it if it was you being…” well, you can finish that sentence however you see fit.
From the get go, from the day kids start stepping out of line, we always need to pull them back into line and make sure that they don’t do these things again. But there are certain things that we must teach our kids before they do them. Sure these 12 year old boys are going to be in very big trouble with their families right now. Although a friend of mine was disgusted that the boys were released on bail, I’m fairly sure that it’s not Disneyland at their house tonight, and all privileges and niceties have been taken away from them.
But it’s too late. The horse has bolted. Sure we can probably say that there is no way in a million years that these boys will ever do something like this again, or we would hope not, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that here we have a six year old girl whose life has been turned upside-down, and all because her attackers were most probably not taught to put themselves in the shoes of someone that they may attack.
My own boys are a few months short of eight years old, and a month older than five. They fight with each other as brothers do. Whenever they start to hit each other I remind them that we (my wife and I) don’t smack, but back in the day, if my brother and I carried on like this, getting hit by our parents was what we had coming our way. So I use that as my fodder. Not as a threat. Okay, maybe as a threat. But I use that “how would you like it if Daddy was to hit you?” in the way that it makes them think that they could easily be in the position that their intended victim is in when they hit them.
I remind them all the time that we keep our hands to ourselves. We don’t touch people in certain places. We don’t touch Mummy there. We don’t touch Daddy there. We don’t touch each other there. (And I’m thankful that joint bath-time is becoming a thing of the past).
I’m not teaching them shame of being naked in front of each other (our family, that is), but when we have visitors staying, they don’t need to see little boys naked, and we respect that our cousins who we once bathed with when we were younger have a right to their privacy now that we are not babies and toddlers any more.
I’m lucky at the moment because our eldest son is going through that “girls are icky” stage and the thought of kissing them disgusts him. He knows that one day he wants to get married and have kids of his own and that he’ll have to find a nice young lady to marry him (who isn’t his mum or cousin… he gets that now). But as soon as girls go from being the carriers of girl germs or cooties, to “objects of their desires,” then I know that I’m going to have to sit him and his brother down Danny Tanner style and teach them about how we don’t touch young girls in a completely different way than how that idea is offered up right now.
The same way that I was taught that girls are no different from boys and boys should respect girls just as much as they would their mate, that’s exactly what I’m going to teach them. How I define the actual term “rape” to them is still something that I’m playing out in my head, but I know that, for now, as we, as a family watch less news on our own television sets and shelter our boys from the horrors of reality, there will come a time when we will have to be straight forward and tell them what is expected of them.
And of course, it’s not just the boys that we have to teach to respect girls; this goes both ways. But for my own experience, for what I would have to deal with as a father of just boys, and the fact that males are still in the majority when it comes to being sexual assault perpetrators, I will need to make sure that I deal with them before it’s too late.
I don’t want to be that parent that has to go down to the station and bail my kid out.
At what age did you teach your kids about sexual assault? Or if you haven’t discussed it yet, at what age are you planning on teaching them?