Our Undercover Teacher explains how we can all work towards improving teen relationships and awareness as they emerge from the virtual world.
Reports of sexual harassment in schools have been covered in detail in the press recently. It is notable that the reports come from all walks of school life, from private, state, mixed and single-sex institutions.
It has brought forward a serious discussion of what educational institutions can do better. The one constant appears to be that boys (and from the reports and my own experience of dealing with these issues, I'm afraid it has mainly been boys' behaviour), need to have a proper rethink about how they act towards, talk to, and talk about, girls.
Given the use of the word 'rape culture' in many of these situations, you may be wondering why I am simply mentioning how boys talk or act. Well, the argument goes like this, if boys are not picked up early on with the 'little things', it can lead to much more serious issues further down the line, such as sexual assault, and, yes, rape - although this is thankfully still a rare occurrence.
What starts as a series of 'microaggressions', which could be as simple as a seemingly off-the-cuff comment to make friends laugh, that doesn't go unchecked, could slowly evolve and develop as the children get older into pestering a girl (friend or not) for nudes. Once this happens, and goes unreported and unchecked, boys may start to feel they can act with impunity, and then they are at a party at say 15 or 16 and are being asked to 'stop' they don't, because given what else they've got away with, there's no reason to.
'Not My Child'-Syndrome
Now, you may be thinking to yourself - 'not my son'. While it's obviously important not to throw blanket accusations around, it could be anyone's son, and parents are likely to have no idea, because so much is going on through social networking and in unsupervised classrooms and corridors that anyone could be easily be involved in wrongdoing. Worse, he might not even understand what he is doing is wrong. Perhaps the adage 'everyone else does it', or 'I didn't know it was wrong' may be at play.
Some of our school parents, when the recent stories came out, decided to have important conversations with their boys along the lines of 'is there anything you need to tell me you've done that may come out'? It's key to remember that we're talking about young people who are still learning and they may well have made a mistake.
Whilst it is vital they are held to account and learn from any wrongdoing, understanding, support and guidance from parents will be helpful and much needed. Again, the temptation to think 'not my son' could be overwhelming, but it's best to resist being overly defensive. Instead, help your son understand what he did - or may have done - wrong, to reflect on his actions, and then hope he has learned from it.
What We Can Do To Help
No doubt schools and parents have a significant part to play in this.
We should both be helping children with how to form strong positive relationships with each other, regardless of gender. After lockdown, this is now more important than ever - as teens venture back from the virtual world into real life situations littered with grey areas, learning opportunities and potential pitfalls.
Both schools and parents can help by openly discussing scenarios like what happens if you ask someone out and they say 'no'. Helping them know when to approach, how to approach and, most importantly, when to stop. We should be helping them with empathy for each other, understanding what constitutes the difference between banter and a micro-aggression.
One word of caution - Your child may report to you that 'X told the school but nothing happened'. This is almost certainly not true. It's worth understanding that schools often deal with things confidentially to protect the victim, so their peers won't actually know what happened, a protection you may also want if something happened to your child.
We would like to live in a world where parents are able to talk to their children about relationships, and where children are prepared to talk their parents, but that isn't always the case - especially with teenagers. However, you can help this by always being clear that they can feel comfortable talking to you about anything. Don't give up and keep making time to talk to them, even if it's just some dedicated time at weekends, before bedtime, while walking the dog or driving to school. Never make something off-limits, as otherwise, they may seek this information elsewhere from a less reliable source.
Another thing I have found that has worked when I have had to talk to boys about their behaviour is to flip the scenario and ask them whether it would be OK for someone to talk or act that way towards their sister, mother or cousin (whatever works). It often makes them stop and think.
Addressing 'Snitch' Culture
One school truism I have found over the years is that bad things don't stop unless there are consequences and the only way schools can stop things is to know about them. For parents with daughters - many may have also had a conversation where they asked if anything has happened they want to tell them about.
Your daughter may report to you that they can't tell you or the school as 'nobody likes snitches' - which is an all too common reaction. There is no doubt that this rather insidious issue is a problem, but again, sometimes things are too important not to 'risk' being called a snitch and I would urge parents to encourage their children to dismiss these fears. Silence is often the oxygen that fuels these fires, allowing them to continue unchecked.
Ultimately - there is a combination of things that schools, parents and children can do to combat sexual harassment in school. Silence isn't one of them. Let's talk to each other and work together improve understanding, communication and awareness.
* Please note opinions are solely the views of the author not My Family Care or Bright Horizons and are there to inform and help provoke thought and reflection on how to navigate parenting challenges. If you are concerned for the welfare of your child for any reason, you may need to seek professional guidance and support ranging from your GP, to A&E, arranging counselling or calling the emergency services. This article is intended for 'non-emergency situations' and is designed to highlight general advice where there is no imminent threat to safety or wellbeing.