POLITENESS IS NOT A TRAIT VALUED ABOVE ALL ELSE IN A GIRL
tool it is. Don’t shame her for being heavy, and don’t praise her for losing weight. In fact, in a culture obsessed with women’s bodies, try saying as little as possible about the shape of her body and as much as you can about the good things that her body can do instead. “Congratulations, you ran right across the field super fast,” beats, “I am glad to see you getting some exercise, we need to tone you up a bit,” every time.
Also watch how you talk about other women’s appearances. Lastly, try to make peace, finally, with your own body. If you are always critical of your appearance you cannot model self-love and acceptance to your daughter.
Our children’s first (and subsequent) sexual encounters should be consensual, it goes without saying. In fact, this should be the norm; but South Africa’s women are being abused at unbelievable rates. Violence against women is tied up with the unique and complex socio-political history of our land, with poverty and anger and the disruption of the family structure by the Apartheid system’s land grabs and migrant labour system. A 2002 study by Jewkes et al, found 97 percent of the black women interviewed had experienced physical violence at some point. It’s endemic, and it needs to stop.
Consent starts with what you model! It’s a great idea to teach boys and girls that “no means no”, and even better to teach them to ensure that they and their partner both feel an enthusiastic “yes” before doing anything sexual together. But be consistent. You can’t teach a girl that she and only she can decide when and how to explore her sexuality – that nobody may cajole or beg or coerce or bully her into any form of sexual contact – and then force her to kiss creepy Uncle George hello.
Overcome your own shyness. You have to actually speak about sex if you want to shield your daughter from abuse. For that, she needs access to vocabulary, the correct words that will help her speak clearly if she needs to tell you something. Teach the words: vagina, vulva, clitoris, penis, testicles.
Teach her that politeness is not a trait valued above all else in a girl, and specifically not if anybody wants to touch her body. Teach her to shout her “no!” Think about any unwelcome formative sexual encounter you have probably had (one study in KZN estimated that half of South Africa’s women’s first sexual experience was not consensual – a horrifying statistic) and realise it can be different for your daughter. If you yourself are in an abusive relationship, seek help urgently for the sake of yourself and your daughter (we know children who witness domestic abuse are more likely to perpetuate the cycle in their own adult relationships). Start at Lifeline (0861 322 322) or Famsa (011 975 7106/7). Think, too, about whether you apply the same sex rules to your sons and daughters – are you being consistent? Are boys “slut-shamed” in your family? (Unlikely.) Do boys and girls receive different sex advice in your home? And is that right?
PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR WORDS
Gendered, discriminatory language is entrenched in our society and we probably all use such language sometimes – but we can aim to become more aware of what we are doing when, for instance, we call a group of women the infantilising “girls” but men the macho-sounding “guys” (never “boys”). When teachers greet their students with a “Good morning, boys and girls,” why are boys routinely greeted first, and what does that teach girls about their place in society?
When we criticise our boys, is it for being scared, emotional or shy? When we criticise our girls, is it for being bossy or loud? When we praise our boys, we are more likely to emphasise active and physical attributes, such as being brave or strong. Girls tend to be praised for being kind, gentle, and helpful. All are good traits, at different times. But neither trait is just for boys or girls. Our daughters should not grow up thinking girls can only be valued for acquiescent behaviour.
Our attitudes towards girls and women have suggested they should be physically and emotionally limited. A 2010 study found women say sorry far more often than men do. Let’s stop that nonsense and give girls back their agency.
BE A SAFE HAVEN
Every parenting manual in the world supports “open lines of communication” between parents and children in order to foster good, trusting relationships. You need to be willing to listen to what your daughter says, and your attitude needs to be one that allows her to speak up for herself even if you disagree with her. Shelve the judgement for now and focus on just listening. If your daughter wants to play soccer, play-fight with swords, wrestle or jump trampoline instead of wearing dresses, having tea parties and behaving in other ways that have been considered “feminine”, can you accept her? Encouraging, or allowing or at least tolerating behaviours that fall outside gender norms go a long way to showing your daughter an acceptance of who she is, and that you believe she is capable of pursuing her interests, whatever they may be. YB