The stories are everywhere — women (and a few men) speaking their truth to abusive male power as the #MeToo movement rolls on. As the parent of two teen daughters, I am glad much light and sound are finally being shed on this topic. But it remains challenging to talk about at home in ways that balance how to promote healthy romantic relationships and avoid toxic ones. The one word I keep coming back to? Boundaries.
As my wife and I discuss with our daughters the ongoing media stories about sexual misconduct, we try to focus on the need for self-boundaries — e.g., physical, emotional and moral. This starts at a young age when all parents teach their children about “private” body boundaries that no one should violate. But as children become tweens and teens, teaching them how to establish and maintain healthy but invisible boundaries can be more challenging. For example, girls are often socialized to be people-pleasers, so even the strength to say “maybe” or “no” instead of “yes” to various social requests needs to be nurtured.
The issue of consent is especially tricky for girls when it comes to romantic relationships. Popular culture romanticizes a borderless self. All those “I’m Nothing Without You” songs make me wretch because they foster dangerous self-talk, particularly for girls. No one’s self-worth should depend on another person. Much to my daughters’ chagrin, when we hear pop love songs together I often voice semi-humorous objections. In a recent example, Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” asked “What are you waiting for?” I hollered: “Consent! He should be waiting for clear consent.” Cue my daughters’ eyerolls, but at least they’ll remember the advice.
As a former English professor, I once gave similar advice about consent by revising a phrase from Robert Frost’s poem titled “Mending Wall,” in which the speaker says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” My version was “Good fences make good selves,” but I’m not sure it registered as well with my daughters.
Whatever ways you can foster your teens’ healthy boundaries and self-talk, I encourage you to do so. Girls, for example, should beware of being put on a pedestal in public but belittled in private. Any disrespect or boundary violation by a mate is an early sign of an unhealthy relationship. The rise of social media has further complicated teens’ ability to maintain a sense of privacy. But they should be reminded that “only fools rush in” to any new romance (or app), and it is fine to “undershare” in the early stages of a relationship, despite what their peers or suitors may say.
Start talk about boundaries early
In lighter moments, I reflect on the first time I discussed dating and romance with my daughters. When my oldest daughter Lauren turned 9, she asked me what an actual “date” means. We were in the car, so I glanced at her in the rearview mirror and reviewed what dating means (and the fact that it was for kids much older than herself). Then I explained that parents are usually OK with their teenagers dating, but they would like their children to get to know themselves before getting serious with someone.
She replied, “What do you mean? I know who I am. I’m Lauren.”
I tried a different tack.
I asked her, “What do you not like to do?” She thought for a moment and said to my surprise, “Play tennis.” I followed by explaining that if that’s true but Johnny Wonderful insists that she love to play tennis or he’ll break up with her, she should stay true to herself and demand respect. She could try to work things out but should never sacrifice her sense of self.
After a moment, she said with a smile, “Dad, you probably thought I’d be older when I asked you these questions, didn’t you? Usually adult stories are boring, but not these ones.” If only such stories could stay boring into her mid-20s.