When I was growing up it was expected that my sister and I would be obedient to any authority figure in our lives. No hesitations or questions were allowed. If my response was ever not both immediate and compliant I could be certain my mother would grab me by the scruff of my neck and shake me right out of my shoes when she found out about it.
I know that the same rule applied to my parents during their childhood. They required it of me because they thought it was “the right thing to do”. It never occurred to them that it could be used to do me harm. But that is exactly what it did. By demanding that I be blindly obedient to any authority figure I was left vulnerable to someone who used my compliance against me.
During my childhood I was sexually abused by a family member, an older male who snuck through the open door of my automatic obedience and stayed for eight years. He told me that complying with his requests made me a “good girl”. And, oh, how badly I wanted to be a good girl! I was obedient for almost a decade, chasing after that goal of goodness. By the time I realized it was all a ruse the damage was so severe that I’ve yet to undo some of it.
I don’t for a moment suggest that the only reason I was sexually abused is because of my parent’s insistence that I obey all authority figures. That is a gross oversimplification. But, that demand did leave me vulnerable. I was never taught to question, seek advice or use my own judgment before meting out compliance. Now, as a single mother with the sole responsibility of raising my son into a man, I have worked to fiercely to foster those skills in him.
Our society is under the false assumption that not only are boys not targets of sexual abuse but that strangers carry the most danger for harming our children in this way. The facts though, are markedly different. The Centers for Disease Control report that one in six boys is sexually assaulted sometime before their 18th birthday. That figure may even be too high as the stigma male survivors of sexual abuse is so great that the crime is vastly underreported.
Crime statistics also teach us that 90% of child sexual abusers are known to their victim. While we may think that all child molesters are scruffy middle aged single men who live in their mother’s basement and spend their days and nights trolling internet chat rooms for their victims the opposite is actually true. Child molesters are our children’s coaches, their uncles, their teachers and even the kindly neighborhood lady who always has a batch of fresh chocolate chip cookies that she’s using to lure kids into her home.
Child molesters are almost universally authority figures in our children’s lives. For me to demand my son exercise blind and complete obedience to them puts him in danger. Having lived through the horrible consequences of this rule gone terribly wrong, I will not impose the same expectation upon him.
Instead, I’ve taught my son to hone his internal warning system, to honor alerts that his mind and gut send to him about something being wrong or off kilter, to develop excellent judgment and to speak his needs and wishes with assertiveness. If he feels unsafe, uncomfortable or doubtful about any demand he knows I will support his choice of noncompliance.
I’ve also educated him about consequences of his decisions. He needs to know that not every authority figure will like or honor his choice if it is to be disobedient. What I make sure he also knows is that I will be beside him to walk with him through any consequences. I know that even I may not always like his choices. Yet I will not abandon him or punish him for exercising his right to refuse a demand that makes him feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
As parents we have to navigate a minefield of dangers that threaten our children. From the choice to vaccinate when they are babies to the fear that their race will endanger their lives as teenagers, we are faced with having to cope with threat after threat. Teaching my son that he has the right to be disobedient to authority figures doesn’t eliminate all danger. But if it can save him from just one predator, of any type, it will be one of the greatest gifts I ever gave him.
Photo: Flickr/Eric Lewis