Rape Culture – Featured on NBC’s TODAY and the Washington Post

Last year, I wrote an essay with Dr. Jennifer Sager about parenting against rape culture for The Washington Post.  

We explained:

There is no way to inoculate our children from becoming victims or perpetrators of rape. But parents can help their children recognize and avoid the erroneous and harmful attitudes surrounding sex, power, control, and coercion. Teach children to respect their bodies, instincts, and emotions. At the same time, give them tools to recognize and respect the same thing in others. Perhaps by doing so, we can shift the dialog and begin to create a culture that fosters healthy boundaries and ends all forms sexual violence.

The essay was shared widely on social media this week, and we were interviewed on the topic by NBC’s TODAY. A link to the article, written by Allison Slater Tate, with our quotes on the topic can be viewed here.

“After the past week’s focus on the sexual assault case at Stanford, Steinberg said it is crucial that parents acknowledge that rape culture does exist and the part that parents can play in fighting it. ‘We owe it to our children to shift this culture,’ she said. ‘We all want our children to enter adulthood armed with the best tools to steer their life’s course.'”

How to parent against rape culture (for one thing, start young) — First published in the Washington Post

co authored by Dr. Jennifer Sager, Ph.D.

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This post was first published in The Washington Post.

In the news, we’ve recently been bombarded with outrageous examples of male dominance, sexual control and coercion, and the objectification of women in very public forums. For example, a fraternity was recently suspended in Virginia after hanging a sign off their front porch that read, “Hope your baby girl is ready for a good time.”

On Facebook, an accused rapist wrote, “women are not people god just put them here for mans entertainment [sic].”

And Bill Cosby nonchalantly discussed his abuse of women in an interview surrounding his recent sex abuse scandal.

Rape Culture is a term coined to explain the very public and often pervasive attitudes in society that highlight coercion and control as central to a culture where sexual objectification exists. And while many parents discuss with older children and teens how to improve their safety in this culture, families are often silent about these issues during the early stages of childhood development. Yet it is during this crucial period that parents can give children the most effective tools to recognize these high risk attitudes in society.

By incorporating the following lessons into daily life, parents can empower their children to understand and regulate their emotions, responses, and reactions, and can teach their children to appreciate these same feelings in others.

1. Teach children that all emotions are important and should be respected. Children must be allowed to cry, to sulk, and to be disappointed. When we rescue children rapidly (with promises of candy or another present), we rob them of the opportunity to learn how to accept these feelings. By doing so, we also demonstrate that we, as the parents, are uncomfortable with our natural range of emotions.

2. When you say no, mean it and don’t backtrack. It’s well documented that inconsistent parenting can exacerbate a child’s behavior problems, but it also means the child does not develop the self-soothing skills needed to accept disappointment. In that same vein, allow your child to occasionally say no, and in those instances, allow your child to stand firm. When a younger child wants to play a game with her sister and the sister wants to play alone, it is tempting to require the older child to share with her younger sibling. But by doing so consistently, this teaches the older child that she needs to change her mind and ignore her own needs as she instead focuses on pleasing someone else. This also misses an opportunity to teach the younger child how to cope when things don’t go her way.

3. Allow children to backtrack. And when you backtrack (as parents inevitably will do), use it as a learning opportunity to teach children that we all have the right to change our minds. It may sound counter-intuitive, but think about it. Imagine packing everything up in the car, finally paying and getting into the ice skating rink, lacing up the skates, and hearing your child say “I don’t want to skate.” Our initial thought would probably be to feel exasperated. We might reasonably think, “I took all this time to get us here. You begged to come here! I paid for your skates. Last time you enjoyed it.” But 10 years from now, as parents, we hope that our daughter’s date respects her feelings if she changes her mind about sexual activity. If your child changes his or her mind about something, respect your child’s instincts and encourage your child to talk about these thoughts and feelings. In the end, your instruction as the parent must prevail, but use these scenarios as opportunities to foster your child’s intuition and to teach your child how to appropriately be heard and respected.

4. Recognize sexual objectification. Do not engage in body shaming. Learn to recognize instances when advertising makes a woman’s (or man’s) body into an object. Discuss this reality with your children and encourage them to think about people’s thoughts and feelings when they see images in the media and other outlets.

There is no way to inoculate our children from becoming victims or perpetrators of rape. But parents can help their children recognize and avoid the erroneous and harmful attitudes surrounding sex, power, control, and coercion. Teach children to respect their bodies, instincts, and emotions. At the same time, give them tools to recognize and respect the same thing in others. Perhaps by doing so, we can shift the dialog and begin to create a culture that fosters healthy boundaries and ends all forms sexual violence.

School Discipline: Standing Up for All Children in the Public School System

Two kindergartners were sent to the principal’s office during their second week of school. One hit a little girl after she refused to share a toy. The other smacked a little boy after he cut to the front in the lunch line.

At the principal’s office, each child was asked what happened in their respective confrontations. Both admitted they used their hands, and both knew they were in the wrong. As would happen in many American schools, both boys were issued two-day suspensions.

One child, Bobby, had been removed from his parents’ care and lived with a foster family. The other child, Sam, lived with his parents, both college educated and involved at the school.

That evening, Bobby received a brief lecture from his foster mother. He was sent to his room early, and the next morning he spent the day at his social worker’s office, watching television and playing video games, as his foster mother could not take off work to stay home with him. A week after the incident, Bobby’s regular social worker received an official letter from the school board, notifying her that Bobby’s suspension was now a part of his educational record. Next year, his new teacher would learn of the incident before even meeting Bobby. If Bobby one day applied to a magnet program, the admissions committee would not only consider his grades but would also review his disciplinary record.

Sam’s parents also took a stern tone with him that night, refused his request for dessert and sent him to bed early. Later that evening, their anger shifted away from their son, and they became outraged at the school’s disciplinary policy.

How could a kindergartner, yet to have taken a spelling test or bring home a report card, now have a permanent disciplinary record?

How could a school system create a policy that sets young children up to face such serious consequences for developmentally normal early childhood behaviors?

The next morning, Sam’s father made an appointment to speak with the school’s principal. At the meeting, he acknowledged that his son was in the wrong. Sam’s father suggested other options, like not letting Sam attend the school’s ice cream social, asking that Sam meet with the guidance counselor, or requiring his son to stay inside during recess for a few days. The principal agreed to the father’s request. She decided to change Sam’s punishment. The principal tore up the suspension paperwork and instead required Sam to miss a week’s worth of recess and to meet with the guidance counselor during his classroom’s monthly ice cream party.

A young school boy is standing with a book bag and looking at school buses in the background.

Because of his father’s intervention, Sam no longer had a disciplinary record. His first grade teacher would never hear of the incident. If Sam applied to a magnet program, it would be as if it never even happened.

The dichotomy of Sam’s time-out and counseling compared to Bobby’s suspension and permanent record might seem appalling, but these sorts of inequities occur in schools across the country every day. Clearly, Sam benefited from his parents having the skills, time, and motivation to challenge the status quo. But not all children have the benefit of confident, involved parents to help them navigate in the public school system.

Generally, parental involvement in a child’s school life decreases behavioral problems and enhances student achievement. While children living with family members may benefit from their support, children in foster care are at a significant disadvantage due to the transitional nature of foster care and the large caseloads of social workers. In addition to the difficulties foster care workers confront, researchers at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that, “foster parents and child welfare caseworkers alike often do not feel empowered or times are not available to advocate for a child to be reinstated in school or receive necessary services.”

While one might be quick to point the finger at Sam’s father for “giving him an easy way out,” it could be argued that a five-year-old is more likely to feel the weight of a missed ice cream party than a day home from school. Unlike suspensions, which do little to stop repeated episodes of misbehavior, effective behavioral modifications reduce referrals to administrator offices which benefits a child’s academic performance. Though a child might not mind missing a day of school, research shows that suspending children actually has lasting, harmful effects.

Early childhood is a time for children to develop their social skills and gain respect for the educational process. Frustrating this process, suspension stigmatizes a child and “may also delay or interfere with the process of identifying and addressing underlying issues, which may include disabilities or mental health issues.” Unlike counseling or the disappointment of missing recess, suspension does little to address the underlying problematic behavior, like hitting another child in response to a stressful situation.

Many organizations are stepping up efforts to help foster children succeed in school. Volunteer Guardian ad Litems and Court Appointed Special Advocates speak on behalf of children both in court and in the school system. Many states have created laws allowing for the appointment of special educational surrogates to represent foster children and other at-risk youth. Similarly, some school districts train community members to serve as both mentors and advocates for all at-risk students.

These are great bandages to solve the problem of inequity in our school systems, but the permanent solution must lie in changing the landscape of school discipline in public education. Sam’s father wasn’t wrong in advocating on behalf of his son. As a parent and child welfare attorney, I also advocate for my own children (both biological and court appointed) in the same individualized manner. However, I recognize that true change will come not as the result of advocacy for the select few. Perhaps we can all resolve to not only look out for our own when faced with an antiquated or unfair policy but instead take these opportunities to engage policymakers in a meaningful discussion that could improve the lives of all children in our public school system.

This post was previously published on the Huffington Post blog.

Stacey is a law professor, mom, photographer, and attorney ad litem. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Set Up to Fail : High Stakes Testing in Public Schools

Imagine being a nine year old child. Picture yourself studying for a test, walking into class, feeling confident you prepared the best you could. How would you feel if after finishing the test you only understood half the questions? Would your confidence be shaken?

Over 1/3 of students failed Utah’s state required standardized assessment last year. Florida purchased questions for its standardized test (commonly called the “FSA”) from this seemingly flawed Utah test and many expect Florida will see similar results. Earlier this month, Florida legislators, recognizing the potential issues with the test, signed a bill promising not to hold back third graders who fail the FSA this year. However, elementary students had already walked away from testing a week earlier feeling inadequate and confused. High stakes testing sets a child up to fail.

Now picture yourself as a young schoolteacher. You are a recent graduate, excited to make a difference in the lives of young children. You want to work at a school close to your home, and, much to your surprise, that school is hiring! You apply and get the job. You familiarize yourself with the bonus and promotion structure and learn that financial incentives are closely tied to your students’ performance on standardized tests.

Even when a school employs hardworking teachers and has the support of parents and local business partners, some schools serve students that live in homes that fall below the poverty line. Research tells us that the number one indicator of how a child will perform on a standardized test is whether or not that child lives in poverty. Our flawed standardized testing model sets even the most talented teacher up to fail.

For a moment, walk in the shoes of a school administrator. You want to guide your teachers and provide a solid curriculum for the students enrolled in your district. However, states are purchasing required tests from large for-profit corporations. You are caught between trying to provide quality education to your students and maintaining the financial backing from the state to do so. Unfortunately, these goals are often mutually exclusive. High stakes testing sets up even the most altruistic school administrator up to fail.

Now take the perspective of a parent. You childproof your home. You vaccinate your child. You put your child in a car seat and you teach her the golden rule. After providing your child a foundation, you send her off to public school, dropping her off at the schoolhouse gate confident that the school system will be your key partner in her education. As the school’s partner, you plan to stay involved every step of the way.

But you soon find out that corporations, not teachers, created the tests your child will take.

You learn that the innovation and creativity you worked so diligently to harness during her first few years of life could be jeopardized by the “high-stakes” testing culture saturating her public school classroom.

You watch as important subjects like history, art, and music slowly drop from the curriculum as these subjects are not covered by the standardized test. 

You know your child needs an empathetic and patient teacher, yet you watch as teachers shift focus because of standardized testing standards. Assets like empathy and patience work against our best teachers who know their performance review will be based on how much and how quickly your child is able to learn.

Perhaps worst of all, your child takes her first standardized test and comes home reporting that she was required to sign a piece of paper promising not to talk to you about the test or the testing procedure itself.

High stakes testing sets parents up for failure, too.

This is the current climate of public education in our country. Students, teachers, and administrators know the system isn’t working. It’s not too late to fix it. Children desperately want to learn and succeed. Talented teachers are ready to provide comprehensive, engaging, and exciting lessons to their students. School administrators are eager to motivate and inspire their districts to use innovative and creative approaches in the classroom. Parents want to partner with their local public schools.

Teachers and administrators can’t fix the system alone. But parents and community members can help. “To make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers. One who does not vote has no right to complain.”  Louis L’Amour

Get involved. Write to your state and national legislatures. Let’s change course and set students, teachers, administrators, and parents up for success.

This post first appeared on The Huffington Post.

The views contained in this post are Stacey’s own and do not represent the views her employer.

 

A Roadmap Towards Work-Life Balance

Last week, I found myself at a coffee shop grading papers. I couldn’t help but overhear two young college students talk about career options and their dreams for work-life balance. It was so hard not to interject. There is so much I want to tell them. But where to begin?

I remember being in their shoes. A third year law student, I thought I knew so much. I wanted to feel passionate about work. I wanted to make a difference. I was sure I would make good money. And I was confident I would seamlessly transition into motherhood a few years down the road.

My confidence was misplaced. While I left law school armed with knowledge and enthusiasm, I had little in my arsenal to prepare me for the realities of balancing work and life.

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