For parents, keeping our children safe is usually our number one priority. We talk to them constantly about difficult issues, hoping to teach them to keep themselves safe when we can’t be with them. We tell them to listen to their inner voice; that little tingle or nudge or sick feeling that we all get in our bellies when we’re around someone or in a situation that makes us feel uncomfortable. We tell them to say “No!” and to run away and tell someone that they trust if someone hurts them or even tries to. We tell them that they have innate value as human beings and because of that they should expect people to respect their bodies and their boundaries and to treat them with dignity. We teach them about personal space and sexual predators and internet safety. We talk to them about bullying until we’re blue in the face. We go on and on and over it all again because we cherish our children and want them to be safe and well and happy.
Ironically, though, there are times in our own adult lives that we can end up in a relationship with someone that isn’t good for us. Our inner voice goes from nudging to pulling at us to down-right screaming that we shouldn’t be around that person; yet we don’t move. We try to squash that voice by ignoring it, or try to reason with it or maybe even try to rationalize it away, because we wonder if there isn’t another answer. Everyone who’s ever stayed with someone who’s hurting them knows that there are a million reasons to stay. Sometimes we just can’t think of a good enough reason to go.
I wonder: what if we pictured our children in that very same situation? How would it make us feel if someone were doing to our children what our partner was doing to us? All of the things that we bear on a daily basis: the disparaging and humiliating comments, the physical abuse, the forced intimacy. What if we expected for ourselves the same as we want for our children? We are, after all, someone’s child. If we believe that no one has the right to hurt our child, then doesn’t it follow that no one has the right to hurt anyone’s child?
If we want our children to believe that they have innate value, maybe we should consider living in a way that validates that premise. If we tell our children that our bodies are our own and should be treated with dignity, it would probably be helpful if the person we’re in an intimate relationship with mirrored that behavior in front of them. And if we tell our children that bullying is wrong and that if someone hurts them or picks on them or makes them feel sad that they should go and tell someone, maybe we should consider doing the same: telling. Going to a trusted friend or co-worker or family member and sitting down and confiding our truth and then trying to figure out a way to get to safety.
Children learn what they live. When they’re little they see themselves as extensions of us. As they grow older, they see themselves reflected in us. And they see everything, especially those things that we wish they’d ignore. It’s like the Murphy’s Law of parenting. The problem with Murphy’s Law is that it’s the law of low expectations, and the only remedy for low expectations is change.