As parents, how can our best intentions for our children become our worst enemy and the greatest tool for an abuser?
In the same way that a victim’s greatest strengths, values, and beliefs can be used against them. If we fail to teach our children both sides to the same coin we leave them vulnerable to be exploited by their virtues. Using girls as the example in this piece, inadvertently sending them the message that they are “less than” compounds the problem. Verizon put out an ad recently that supports equality of genders in the sciences citing a statistic by the National Science Foundation that 66% of 4th grade girls say they like science and math, yet only 18% of females go on to major in the field. It just so happens that Verizon’s quest to explain this phenomenon presented an opportunity to explain one of the tools an abuser uses to entrap his victim.
Often times when a victim is asked to describe the beginning of her relationship with her abuser it goes something like this:
“It happened so fast. He was such a good listener. He was so interested in me. I had never had anything like that. In the past is was always about “him”, “him”, “him”. This time “Ben” wanted to know everything about me. He wanted to know about my family, my friends, where I grew up, what my childhood was like, the things that hurt me, what I didn’t like…”
In a healthy relationship “it happened so fast” isn’t as common as one would think. In a healthy relationship, a partner wants to know and learn about their romantic interest in an effort to bond with and understand them. Time is taken to form this bond. In an abusive relationship mastering a victim is to gain control and learn what tools are available to maintain control. The only bonding that is of interest is the bonding of the victim to the abuser. This process is done very quickly before a would be victim has time to get to know the abuser.
Parents, proceed with caution when innocently telling your girl: “Who is my pretty girl?”, “Don’t get your dress dirty”, “You don’t want to mess with that”, and “Be careful with that. Why don’t you hand that to your brother?” Not only may you be sending the message that she is incapable and “less than”, as Verizon suggests, but you may be conditioning her to be exploited by an abusive person.
“Who is my pretty girl?” may be being interpreted as “If I am not pretty, I will not be loved.” If an abuser sees this as a tool his script becomes, “I will not love you if you are not pretty. If you do not do obey me I will disfigure you and you will not be pretty.” Consider what many of us are willing to endure to be loved and accepted.
“Don’t get your dress dirty” may be processed as having a standard to maintain, a certain way to present one’s self at all times. I am an object not a person. I am not to explore, just be. An abuser can use this to his advantage simply be reinforcing the notion. “You are nothing more than a female, an object to be owned. You are here for my enjoyment and convenience.” This leaves her in a dehumanized position.
“Be careful with that. Why don’t you hand that to your brother?” The message received here is one of incapability. If a victim is not capable of even the simplest of tasks, what of the complexities of living on one’s own? Ridged gender roles are reinforced which are fundamental building blocks for abusive people. This particular dynamic places the female in both a dependent and subordinate position to the male. This allows him the script, “You need me. You have to depend on me for your survival. You can not live without me. You are not equal. You do not have the same rights as a male…as me”
In an effort to follow the social paradigm and raise our girls to be proper and desirable members of society, our good intentions can look something like this: as long as you stay pretty you will be loved, you are nothing more than an object that must remain flawless, being that you are of the weaker sex you’re by default incapable, and as such must depend on a man to think, provide, and act for you. Unfortunately, not only will your daughter not be getting her degree in the sciences…she is now perfectly compatible for an abuser.
What if we reinforce the positive side of the coin? Tell her she is your pretty girl unconditionally inside and out. No one can take that away and don’t let anyone try. Learning self respect through personal pride of appearance is important. However, parents can teach there is a time and a place. Appropriate clothes can be worn to get dirty in and getting dirty is okay. Being gender bias is never a healthy message. If that is not your intention as a parent when asking the younger sister to hand off to the older brother, then make the message about age not gender.
It is important to raise our children with the entire message. If we don’t we are leaving an open ended sentence. A vague and open ended sentence leaves plenty of room for an abusive person to fill in the blanks with any definition they please. Let’s do what we intended to do in the first place as parents, send our children a healthy message, and raise them to be the strong and beautiful people they are. Deplete the inventory for abusive people to choose from.