I don’t hover at the playground. When my daughter and son were toddlers, I was deliberate in helping them learn to climb up ladders and along playscapes. I wanted them to develop the physical strength, confidence, and problem-solving skills that playgrounds supply. Plus, I figured they would be safer if they knew how to maneuver on the bigger equipment than if I limited their exploration to the toddler area, only to have them venture onto the larger structures if my attention were diverted for a moment.
I’m afraid of heights, and I have a vivid imagination, so I still feel a low-level hum of nervousness when I watch them climb. But, I keep it in check by reminding myself that playground equipment over soft surfaces is generally safe, and they have enough skill that falls aren’t too likely.
Turns out I’ve been worried about only one kind of danger. A recent incident on the school playground left me shaken, angry, and aware that I cannot protect my little girl from what, unfortunately, is probably inevitable risk.
My daughter, “Little,” just turned five. She’s “five by a biscuit,” as her father would say. When she was climbing on the jungle gym, her dress got tangled in the equipment. Somehow, the shorts she wore under her dress became askew, exposing Little’s underwear.
As she struggled to free herself, four boys started laughing, taunting her that they could see her panties.
She asked them to stop. They didn’t.
One boy got kicked in the nose. At this point, the teachers on duty intervened. The boy was taken to the school nurse and, according to the report I received, was “fine” by the time he got there. No blood; no broken bones. Little insists the kick was an accident and that her foot happened to connect with the boy’s face when she was struggling to get down. I tend to believe her—in part because she’s stuck to her story, even after having been told that, under the circumstances, she would not be in trouble if she had done it on purpose. Also, I think if she had really meant to kick the boy, the damage would have been worse. Some blood, at least.
In the end, everyone learned a good lesson, and there was no real damage.
Except there was.
When I picked her up, Little was extremely upset. She was “embarrassed” and “scared of those boys.” Scared that they would do it again. From her perspective, those four boys turned her “from a fancy lady into a clown.”
I get it. There she was, compromised and vulnerable, and rather than help her, four boys banded together and took advantage of her exposure for their own pleasure.
I’m not saying this event was as egregious as those headline-making stories about groups of young men who physically violate young women. But when you correct for these children’s young ages, it’s not all that different. For a five-year old, underpants are a Big Deal. There’s a reason why that “I see London, I see France” taunt exists, and why no kid wants to be on the receiving end of it.
She was humiliated and scared. Her voice was not enough to make the boys stop. When the boy got kicked—whether by accident or on purpose—the adults rallied around the obvious victim and made sure he got the care he needed. It’s not clear to me that anyone made sure Little was OK.
The status of the boys also is alarming to me. One boy is Little’s age. Two are a year older and were her classmates last year. One is in first grade, significantly older than preschool-aged Little. Everything I know about our school community leads me to expect that in a situation like this, a child would offer to help a friend, classmate, or younger student in distress. I am surprised and disheartened that a group of boys—made powerful by age and relative number—showed no compassion or concern for the little girl they turned into a laughingstock.
I did my best to console Little, and to affirm that she had done the right thing by sticking up for herself. But I knew I was not the best-suited to help her find peace. I asked Little if it was OK for me to “tell Daddy” what happened. She nodded through her tears.
Meg Meeker, M.D., author of Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know, explains that “when a child is humiliated or harmed, her natural instinct is to get back at the offender, to fight, to defend herself. Every ounce of her screams, to claw, to run, to do something—but she is physically weaker than her attacker.” To a daughter, her father is “big, tough, and smart.” A daughter knows that “[Dad] can help. He has the answer. My dad will make things right because he loves me. My dad will kill him. He’ll stand up for me.”
Dr. Meeker advises that when a girl has been victimized, if her father gets angry and takes action, even just “a simple angry phone call” to the boy, his daughter “will feel affirmed, loved, and defended. She will feel a sense of justice. She will feel a sense of closure over the horrible incident.” Dr. Meeker points to a common belief among psychiatrists that a father’s response is the most important factor in how quickly a girl recovers mentally from a sexual assault.*
*Little’s experience was a routine incident: the ordinary slings and arrows of the schoolyard. Dr. Meeker’s discussion of more serious violations is instructive, but deals with situations of severer magnitude.
When we got home, I gave my husband a heads-up that I needed to tell him something about Little, and that she needed to see him angry.
Turns out I didn’t need to prime the pump. To his eternal credit, my husband, Little’s father, went full Papa Bear, telling her that “no one has any business looking at [her] panties, or making fun of [her],” that she did the right thing by telling them to stop, and that she should “fight like a tiger” if she needs to defend herself. He let her know that boys who mistreat her will have a “serious problem” with him and “better start running fast.”
He also used the opportunity to impress upon Little and her younger brother that if they ever see someone in trouble, their job is to help, not to laugh. And Little’s brother must always be a gentlemen.
I know this is not the last time Little will be involved in an incident at school, and the next time, she might not be on the victim-side of the deal. More saddening is the knowledge that this probably is not the last time that a boy will try to take advantage of her. I hope she is learning that she can—and should—stand up for herself, and that if she can’t do it alone, her father will be right behind her.