It was a perfect summer afternoon. We were visiting family and enjoying a spontaneous pool party. Cousins splashed and played while the grown-ups lounged poolside, eyes and ears on the water. This pool had a big blue water slide. My daughter had been trying to muster the courage to take her first turn, but I could sense by her body language that she was scared. She watched, arms crossed and brow furrowed, as her cousins climbed up and whooshed down the slide over and over again.
One of her cousins, just six months older but a veteran slide-goer, was trying to encourage her to take a turn.
He really wanted her to go down that slide.
“Come on! It’s so fun!”
“You promised me you would go down the slide today!”
I was watching the interaction. My daughter is the type of kid who won’t do anything she is not ready to do. As much as her stubborn personality and cautious tendencies drive me crazy sometimes, I’ve tried to honor these traits. It is, after all, a good thing that she knows herself. It plays out in big and small ways, just like this small interaction I was witnessing by the slide. This persistent cousin of hers could try different tactics but they would likely fail until she was ready to take the plunge.
Little did I know, my sister was also watching this interaction. Before her son could mount his next persuasive pitch, she rose up, marched over to her son, looked him in the eye and asked him,
“What did she say to you?”
My nephew answered, “She said no.”
My sister continued, “That’s right. She said no. And when someone says no, they mean no. Not, ‘ask me again in a different way.’ Now leave her alone. She’ll do it when she’s ready.”
My sister returned to our spot beside the pool and said, “We have to teach our boys that no means no.”
This might not seem all that earth-shattering a statement. But, we are in a moment here. A moment where consent is not honored and voices are not heard. My husband and I teach our daughter to ask for what she needs. To speak up when she’s not ok. We preach that she is in charge of her body. This is good, but it is not enough. It is not enough for daughters to learn how to speak up and advocate for themselves; we need our sons to participate in girls’ empowerment.
For every mom telling her daughter to speak up, there must also be a mom telling her son to listen.
I imagine moms of boys feel just as overwhelmed in our current climate, trying to raise good men. What messages do boys hear? Who teaches them how to listen? How do they learn advocacy when they sense a girl’s voice is being silenced by others? It must be so frustrating to model respect when so many grown-ups are rewarded for machismo. It must be daunting to teach a boy the power of listening when so many are rewarded just for being the loudest voice in the room.
My daughter never went down the slide that summer. She wasn’t ready. It wasn’t until a year later that she finally took the plunge. I don’t know if my daughter remembers this interaction. She probably didn’t understand the gravity of seeing a boy learn to respect the word ‘no.’ As for me, I’ll never forget it. This experience made me feel a little less scared raising my daughter in a world that all too often wishes to silence her. We are all in this together.