When our daughter was about six years old, we always joked she was so pretty we’d already have to start saving for a shotgun for when the boys started visiting. One day, she asked me seriously what we would do if a boy showed interest in her when she’s older. I replied we’d invite him to dinner, so Dad and I would be able to assess him and get to know him before he can date our daughter. Her four-year-old brother, who’d half listened but didn’t catch all that, asked her what Mommy would do if a boy wanted to date her. She said: “She’ll shoot him with a gun, then invite him to dinner.”
This is a family classic joke, but it also shows the mindset we were in at the time. Our circumstances led us to reevaluate our life, beliefs, convictions from the foundations up, and the attitudes behind that joke are among the foundations that were rebuilt.
Believing your job is to protect your daughter is to believe she is not able to protect herself. I’m not talking physical protection, I’m talking a kind of oversight of every decision, every relationship, insisting that you have authority and the final say over her movements – as in, she has to ask your permission to go here or there. That sends the message to her that she is incapable. The sad thing about psychology is that being bombarded with the message that you’re incapable can make you incapable. When you are constantly told in myriad little ways that you can’t, you are likely to believe you can’t, therefore you can’t.
Instead, I know my daughter is a capable, intelligent person. She has no curfew and we make no demand that she report her every move to us, because we trust her judgement, and even if her judgement is faulty, she will never learn to improve it unless we give her space to make mistakes. Our one and only demand with our children is that they make sure their mobile phone is charged and on at all times. That way, if we worry, we can contact them, and we often do just to say hi, if we haven’t seen them for a few hours and want to touch base. Our job as parents instead is to be there, whenever they need us, to listen without a breath of judgement ever ever no matter how stupid they may have been. This is critical, because if they fear they may be met with anger, “how could you”, blame, or a rant about how much their actions are now going to inconvenience us, they will keep things to themselves which will do much more harm without our help than with it. We work hard to stay neutral, even at times when we feel shocked or think they may have made a silly mistake. That way we create the best possible chance that when they need us, our children will come to us and ask for help.
That last sentence refers to children rather than just our daughter, because that’s the other thing: we treat all three our children exactly the same. The only variations lay in responses to their level of ability and responsibility when they were much younger. Our rule was that the price of freedom is responsibility. So when they were in their pre-teen and early teenage years, moving slowly from the age-appropriate, necessary control we exercised as parents to the greater freedom of approaching adulthood, they earned our blessing to go about unsupervised in return for showing they were responsible enough to do so. The rules were and are no different for our daughter. We stopped treating her differently from her brothers because we want her to go into the world used to equal treatment with the men around her. In this house, we strive to not normalise inequality.
We also consider our children’s sex lives utterly, utterly their own private business. To me especially this is incredibly important. When they decide to first experience it, how, where: all their own business. If one day we were to suspect or accidentally find out they’re having sex in our house, as long as they are respectful and discreet I don’t care. Their rooms are their space, their privacy sacred. I would much rather our kids have sex in such a controlled environment, and use protection, than try desperately not to be normal human beings and then cave in to natural, normal, healthy urges in an uncontrolled, unplanned, unsafe environment. Again, I of course demand respect for the fact that this is my and Micky’s house where they also live: discrection is just good manners. But if by accident we become aware they’re sexually active, it is NONE OF OUR BUSINESS.
The critical ingredient here is openness. We have never treated sex as some taboo subject. It has always been private, but not shameful. Especially as the kids got older, we emphasised that sex is an adult thing you should engage in when you’re ready. It’s like driving: you need some maturity to handle it, because it can have some serious consequences, and necessitates remembering responsibility at a time of high emotion. Virginity is neither a sacred gift to treasure nor a burden to try and get rid of as quickly as possible. It is actually quite a stupid term, if you think of it, because we have no similar term for people who have not experienced fulltime work yet, or haven’t travelled alone yet. Sex is a very similar experience connected with maturing and being able to handle greater responsibility. We emphasised the need to use condoms, and were frank about both the beauty and the possible negative consequences of sex. Those times the kids approached us with sex-related questions, we again worked hard to always respond with zero judgement, with love, acceptance, and assurances that they are okay, this is just an aspect of humanity we learn to manage as we grow.
To those parents who argue that they merely react with disgust and condemnation when finding out their child has engaged in sex before marriage, or at an age the parent deems too young: firstly, how in the name of all the gods do you expect your child to flick a switch in their mind on their wedding day and suddenly do a 180 on years’ indoctrination that their natural urges are disgusting and wrong? Also, who are you to judge when your child is old enough for sex? Age alone cannot be an indicator, and you do not have the right nor the insight into their feelings, thoughts, and emotions to be able to judge on their behalf. You do not own your child, and if they make this decision and regret it, your job is to be there to comfort them and assure them it is just like any other mistake: if you slept with someone and realise it was too soon, you don’t have to sleep with anyone again until you feel ready. They are not going to share these feelings and doubts and regrets with you if they know you’ll explode, so your actions will leave them adrift and without support at the time they need you most.
Where alcohol is concerned, we have been frank with the kids that it’s a great thing to have in moderation, but easy to sneak into addiction. We have also been frank that while nothing excuses crime, and you are never responsible for being a victim of crime, it is a fact that being drunk makes you more vulnerable. You can reduce your vulnerability if you don’t get blackout drunk. Again their use of alcohol is their decision, and the most we do is to share our thoughts and beliefs about it with them. Drugs, too, we have been very frank about the negative consequences, and this is important: we have done our research so that we base our advice on fact.
Finally, this is a big deal: I strive to never, never lie to our kids. I am horrified with these “awww sweet” stories of silly lies parents tell their kids. For instance, I read the funny story the other day of parents who told their kids the car goes faster if you sit quiet and still. Ha ha ha, so funny, except you have taught them not to trust you. More extreme was an acquaintance who went to the ridiculous length of flying her child to Lapland to meet “Santa” when the child started suspecting it’s a myth, to extend the child’s belief a little while, preserve the magic of childhood a little longer. What the actual fuck! How is that child supposed to ever trust what their mother tells them, ever? Because she demonstrated that she will lie and lie and lie if she feels the child believing a certain thing is best for them, even if it is not the truth.
It all comes down to control. Parents must cop on that they do incredible damage if they try to control their children’s lives. Control is necessary when the child is very young, but it is a necessity that should never be extended beyond what is healthy. Like wearing nappies: totally, yes, it is necessary, but keeping a child in nappies when they have reached a stage of being capable of doing without them is harmful. Keeping control when the child is mature enough for responsibility is the same thing.