At 9 years old, my twin girls already experienced #MeToo

Sexual harassment can start young—and as parents, we must be prepared for it
By Darlena CunhaPublished on 01/31/2019 at 9:00 AM EDT
How do we handle #MeToo moments when it comes to our daughters? Janko Ferlič/Unsplash

On a sunny spring day last year, my identical twin girls (then 9 years old) crowded around me at the small kitchen table, devouring their after-school snack and telling me about their day. I smiled and nodded as they talked over each other, paying half-attention as I mentally tallied up their homework assignments. Then everything screeched to a halt.

“Mommy, what does rape mean?” one twin asked.

My mind went in a million directions, and before I could collect myself enough to formulate a response, the other one piped up.

“Not rape. He said grape. I’m sure he said grape.”

My daughters had never heard the word “rape” before that day when a boy in their grade sidled up to one of them during gym and told her he wanted to rape her sister.

And yes, it was rape, not grape.

Before I answered their question, I tried to get the whole story out of them. Apparently, earlier in the week, this boy had stuck paper down his pants and chased my daughters around, trying to force them to smell it.

For months, my girls hadn’t eaten the string cheese I sent with them for school lunch. That day, I found out it was because they feel embarrassed and scared to take the cheese out of their bags because this little boy points, laughs, and says they are eating a penis. His penis.

As parents, this is a moment we dread, a moment that, no matter when it comes, arrives too early. The news continues to focus on #MeToo moments of the past. Adults come forward and have to relive the trauma of their youth or their past, and society is so caught up in how we address these allegations and how we can repair the damage done to the victims, that I worry we’ve forgotten that these things did not happen in a time capsule. They continue to happen all the time. We have to be vigilant, and help our children as best we can, so that 30 years from now, we don’t have to witness them coming forward with the #MeToos that are happening to them right now.

We have to be vigilant, and help our children as best we can, so that 30 years from now, we don’t have to witness them coming forward with the #MeToos that are happening to them right now.

I, of course, brought the issue to the principal the next morning. Sitting across the desk from him, I detailed the issues and watched his jaw drop.

The principal started an investigation, meaning he had to interview both the girls. It’s here where my story goes even more sideways. Given the world in which we live, sadly, I expected my girls would at some point get harassed. I also expected the school to do a thorough investigation and take necessary actions after they had the whole story.

What I didn’t expect was the stone silence one of my girls gave the principal and the other folks who questioned her. Meanwhile, my other daughter lied and covered for the boy. It took hours of patience, cajoling, asking gently, and more to get either of them to give the school officials even a sliver of what they had told me at home. And when they got back home, they turned on me.

“Why did you tell on him, mommy? What if something bad happens to him? We’re okay, we don’t mind.”

I had to inform them that, yes, they do mind. They will mind. They must mind. I had to rewire what society had already bred into them, somehow, when I wasn’t looking. That girls must be quiet and demure and put up with being uncomfortable in order to be liked, to be accepted.

After the investigation, the principal decided to remove the boy from the class he shares with one of my daughters, and the boy is to have no contact with my kids. That’s when the next unexpected deluge came: They defended him.

“Mom, he just likes us.” “Mom, he’s just teasing.” “Sometimes he can be nice.” “I don’t want him to get in trouble because of me.”

My girls, at only 9, were already placing perpetrator feelings ahead of their own. They felt more fear and sadness for the boy getting in trouble than they felt relieved not to be in a situation where they were being constantly harassed. They would rather handle it themselves (ie: ignore it, smile it away, downplay it) so that they didn’t make waves.

And really, they are not wrong, because even now, even in 2019, if they are loud and stand their ground against sexual harassment, they are merely trading one form of discomfort for another. They can be harassed and be chill about it, or they can tell someone and be ostracized for being uptight, mean, tattletales, whatever—and still be harassed. Why wouldn’t they opt for the former?

While the school was quick to punish the child in question, I wasn’t looking for punishment. I don’t want retribution, but rather proactive prevention. We need to make changes in the curriculum as to how and when we start teaching children about harassment. We need to teach our girls how to stand up for themselves, not how to fit in.

We need to recognize patterns of aggression and nonchalant displays of power in our children as well, and investigate the fuller picture. What is happening in a child’s life that they would know to use words like rape, or that putting a penis in a girl’s face would be something they could even consider doing?

What kinds of services can we put in place to provide support to both parties in this situation, while also looking forward to the future? Instead of directly questioning each student after the fact, we should generally address these issues for a child audience before they happen to individuals.

The point is, #MeToo isn’t just a news story on the latest celebrity. It isn’t just a couple of old memories you have of your teenage years that you now have to process. It isn’t just Christine Ford and Brett Kavanaugh. It isn’t just nearly every adult woman you know and many men. It is children, too. We need to be ready.

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