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Harassment vs. Helicoptering

Harassment vs. Helicoptering

By Mir Kamin

Got tweens/teens? We’re trying a new advice column here at Alpha Mom to address your questions for the older-kid crowd. We hope you enjoy! And if you have a question to submit, hit me up at alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.

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My question stems from a situation my 13-year-old 7th grade daughter is in. She recently casually brought up to me how annoying “Johnathan” is being in school. They apparently just switched seats around in her math class and they now share a table. He has, so far this grading period, called her various names (fugly, for instance), told her he knows where she lives, and apparently pulled out the “your mom is a (insert every filthy name a 13 year old can think of)”. This has gotten to the point where the other young man at her table has started defending her and trying to get Johnathan to stop.

My problem is how badly I really want to call the teacher about this (my daughter was noncommittal when I asked her if she’d like for me to speak with the teacher). For one, this is math, her hardest subject, and he’s harassing her during work and test time (she already has testing anxiety). For another, I mean I know he’s only 13, but being so filthy towards a young girl and then saying he knows where she lives is threatening and scary. It is not a good environment for her. I refuse to tell her he just likes her because I refuse to allow her to believe being made to feel awful should be flattering. Also, if another young man is so disturbed by what he is saying that he feels the need to intervene, then I feel it has gone way too far.

She’s my oldest, so these are uncharted waters. When do I back up and let her defend herself and how do I know when to step in? I consider myself a laid-back parent. I try to let the teachers work their magic in school while I support their efforts and my children at home. In the school careers of both my children, I’ve only had to seriously intervene once on behalf of my son, and everything is typically handled easily and without drama. This, however, feels to me like it’s going too far but there’s a part of me that wants to see her take this on. Ugh! I thought middle school was tough when I went through it!

Signed,
The Hesitant Helicopter

Ooooohhhh boy. Listen, I’m about to climb atop my soap box, so anyone who thinks the situation described here is “kids being kids” probably wants to clear out before I get started.

Before addressing your specific scenario, though, I’ll just give you a blanket guide of mine (invented by me, endorsed by absolutely no one official, but anyway) in terms of school intervention. It goes like this: In elementary school, I manage my kids’ experience. I try to keep that to “managing” rather than “micromanaging,” you understand, but I do not expect my 10-and-under children to fend for themselves. In middle school, I start backing off and encouraging them to figure out when they can handle something before they come running to me. I’d say it’s like easing off the accelerator, with me providing maybe half the support I did before. In high school, freshman year I handle about the same as middle school, but sophomore and junior years they are encouraged to take the reins, and by the time we hit senior year, I walked into my oldest’s first IEP meeting and announced that she would be running her own meeting and doing her own advocacy, and I would just be observing. So that’s my framework, in general, and that’s with kids who have some special needs.

In other words: I’m with you on letting kids find their own way as much as possible.

On the other hand—and I’m sure you won’t find this surprising, as it sounds like you’re in a similar place—I feel like the situation you’re describing is a crucial juncture between letting your daughter navigate on her own and some very dangerous assumptions about what is reasonable and acceptable. Let’s be very clear here: Your daughter is not only being harassed, she’s being sexually harassed. And (here comes my soap box) we live in a society which loves to give young men a pass when they pull this garbage, and would much rather tell a young woman she’s being too sensitive or has no sense of humor. Maybe this situation isn’t a big deal to her (though I doubt that, and I’ll get to why in a minute), but allowing it to continue is sending a clear message that Johnathan’s behavior is acceptable and her discomfort is her own problem. Personally, I believe that to be a dangerous and unacceptable precedent.

Your daughter deserves to have an unobstructed, safe learning environment. No one has the right to make her feel uncomfortable or threatened, and no one has the right to say filthy things to her as if it was no big deal. This is the age where adolescents are forming how their sense of self fits into society at large, and allowing this situation to continue means she will internalize the notion that “not making waves” is more important than feeling safe. Sorry, that’s a huge nope from where I’m sitting. Whether she wants you to or not, you intervene. And you tell her that you are doing it because you love her and she deserves to feel safe and no one has the right to treat her that way. If she says, “Oh, but Mom, it’s okay,” you reiterate that it is in no way, shape, or form okay. And you do it for her safety now but also so that when she’s at a party in college six years from now and some guy backs her into a corner and tells her to relax, she gets out of there.

Let’s also be clear that Johnathan is in no way unusual in that he’s pushing boundaries and (apparently) no adult has made it clear to him that his behavior is unacceptable. Does his behavior now mean he’s destined to grow up to be a rapist or a sociopath? Probably (hopefully) not, but if there isn’t some intervention now, the odds are high that he’ll become an adult who still thinks that behavior is fine. Let’s hope he’s young and dumb and maybe doesn’t have great role models at home or whatever, and that—once confronted—he changes his behavior.

If it were me, I would contact the teacher and the principal, both, with a long email detailing the history of this situation. I would be clear that your daughter seems reluctant to say anything and that is exactly why you’ve had to step in, as you can all agree this is a completely unacceptable situation, violates your district’s bullying code, however you want to put it. Be clear that you want Johnathan removed from her table and—if you’re feeling particularly feisty—add that if you receive another report of harassing behavior you will consider filing criminal charges. I would probably also express concern for Johnathan, who clearly needs some intervention, but at the same time, no apologies for making your own child your first priority, y’know?

One more thing—it’s time to spend some time with your daughter (heck, all of your children, male or female) talking about the difference between shrugging off someone being a jerk and refusing to put up with someone truly violating your rights. The fact that your daughter demurred when you offered to talk to the teacher tells me not that she’s unbothered, but that she doesn’t feel entitled to make it stop (even through you). That’s… not good. This starts in middle school and puts a lot of kids, mostly girls, in harm’s way by high school. If that scares you, good. It should. Take this as a golden opportunity to open a dialogue about what is and isn’t okay. Girls her age will readily agree that unwanted touching is wrong but shrug if you ask if a boy has the right to call them sluts. The lines between “being a typical immature jerk” and “truly impeding on someone’s selfhood and sense of safety” get blurry when people don’t value themselves and others appropriately.

This isn’t about you being a helicopter. This is about you standing up and saying to the school and your daughter that you will not tolerate inexcusable behavior. This is your chance to set her up for self-confidence and better safety for the rest of her life. Please do.

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Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.

Mir Kamin
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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Comments

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  • Chris

    Mom of twin 8th grade boys here.  If either ever did this, I’d wring their neck!

    YES to everything Mir said.  Unfortunately, this is all too common and girls aren’t the only targets.  Middle school is full of immature fools combined with a culture of not squealing and acting like it’s all OK, when it’s not.  This crosses so many lines that you do need to intervene.  She’ll learn that you care enough to act AND it becomes a teaching opportunity if you tell her exactly how you are going to handle it like a mature adult.  Just tell her that this a case that’s bigger than a 7th grader should have to handle on her own.

    The fact that she was noncommittal instead of ‘No Way Mom, don’t you DARE’, suggests that she wants or at least will accept your intervention.

    Our middle school has an ‘anonymous’ bully reporting mechanism, essentially an email to the Vice Principal (who could of course get the unnamed student sender’s IP address since it’s all part of the school network).  My boys have used it once or twice and it’s been effective.  But then again, I have almost nothing but good things to say about our administration at the middle school, and I know that’s not the case everywhere.  

    • Kate

      There are definitely some good administrators out there and they do make a difference. When I was in maybe 3rd grade I was in a similar situation at an after school homework club. The teacher running it made my best friend move to a different table and sat this older boy down across from me because he was being disruptive at his previous table. Of course he starts being rude and insulting to me and after telling him to quit doesn’t work I call the teacher over and ask her to let me move. She says no and after maybe 10 more minutes of putting up with his sh*t I lost my temper kicked him under the table. Teacher send us both to the VP’s office and after hearing what happened she turns to the boy and says “You deserved it” and doesn’t punish me at all. Absolutely a defining moment of my young life.

  • Steff

    Thats right, Mir! Unacceptable! As parents engaging school leadership for these toxic situations is absolutely mandatory. Who knows who else he is treating this way that could be more vulnerable especially at these delicate forming ages.

  • Mir, you are right on! So important to address this issue, for all the reasons that you mentioned. So glad to see this issue addressed!

  • Hear, hear! Girls absolutely internalize that kind of talk. At 13, she’s right on the brink of defining herself as a sexual being. If she learns that it’s not okay to defend herself against someone sexually harassing her, she will carry that the rest of her life. Normally I would say wait before going over someone’s head, but this has been happening under the teacher’s nose and it needs to stop now — there’s no point in waiting to get the principal involved.

  • EL

    I totally agree with what you’ve said here. It’s a parent’s right to intervene in such a situation, even if the child outright didn’t want the parent to. I remember 2 experiences from elementary/middle school: 4th grade being blocked into a classroom with 3 boys with rude things said to me; and 6th grade sitting between 2 boys in the back of a classroom who would both put their hands in my lap. Did a teacher ever notice or intervene? No. And I didn’t want to “bother” my parents so didn’t say anything. But I still, in my late 40’s, remember how those experiences felt, that lack of power and demoralization. I wish an adult had told me, and the boys, that the behavior wasn’t okay and had intervened.

  • meghann

    As someone who was in a very similar situation to your daughter at the same age, and no one intervened for me, I have to say: GO. INTERVENE. 

  • Jodie

    Preach, sister!

    +1 to everything Mir said.  If we don’t show our young girls absolute anger and resolve that THIS ISN’T OK, they won’t learn to think that way.

    Your instincts are spot on hear OP.  

  • “One more thing—it’s time to spend some time with your daughter (heck, all of your children, male or female) talking about the difference between shrugging off someone being a jerk and refusing to put up with someone truly violating your rights.”  <– ALL OF THIS RIGHT HERE. This lesson can be a really hard one for young women to navigate because of all the crappy messages the culture sends them about what kind of behavior from men they are expected to tolerate. That makes our jobs as parents all the harder. (I have a boy, considerably younger than your daughter, and believe me when I say I think ALL THE TIME about countering the social forces conspiring to make him act like a Johnathan when he's older.) Go forth and intervene, Mom. It's not helicoptering, it's modeling appropriate boundary-setting.

  • Marie

    I still, as an adult, gauge a lot of my asking for help by how much it will bother someone. I am terrible about thinking I am not worth the trouble. I can’t speak for this girl, but I know that downplaying something is a way to evaluate what other people think. If they agree, I was probably making too big a deal of it. If they protest because it is a big deal, it gives me permission to decide I am worthy of better treatment. All that to say that a 13 year old girl is not typically prepared to speak up in her defense at the risk of drawing more unwanted attention and/or being told she is overreacting. She’s not overreacting, and she needs an adult to have her back and affirm her right to a safe learning environment. The harassment is unacceptable, so speak up.

  • Cindy

    Amen, Mir. Amen to all of that.

  • Caroline

    Woah did this bring back some horrible memories. I was in the same situation, 8th grade, only it was on the city bus to and from school. Jerk Boy said horrible things to me daily. I told my Mom and she said “Oh he probably just likes you”. I still to this day (I’m 48) feel rage and shame when I think about it. The message I took at the time carried with me into adulthood “its ok for someone to treat you like this. It must be true —- you are ugly. You suck for not being able to stand up for yourself/make it stop”. I’m just now learning how to speak up on my on behalf. As one who wished someone would have done for me. Please do as Mir suggested and intervene on your daughter’s behalf.

  • Lisa

    I’ve recently heard a lot about how as a victim of bullying, you should label what they’re doing. So, “Hey, stop, you are bullying me.” I’m not saying your daughter needs to learn to say that this time, but I thought it was a good idea, so that the Johnathans of the world get an immediate 2nd chance to take back the horrid thing they thought might just be a joke.

    It’s awesome to see you stand up for your daughter-let that Mamma Bear out!

  • Holly

    I absolutely agree – what he is saying is NOT OK and indicative of an aggressive, mysoginistic mindset that needs to be challenged. Not only does your daughter need to be removed from this situation and supported in realising that no-one, male or female, has the right to make her feel this way, this young man clearly needs to have his behaviour addressed before he gets older and his thoughts begin to turn into actions. 

  • LisaK

    YES! To everything Mir said!

  • Jeannie

    I have to add my voice to the chorus of — everything Mir said was right. Intervene. That is WAY past the line of being a jerk and well into the territory of completely unacceptable, bullying behaviour — the type that feeds right into rape culture. That kid needs to be told in no uncertain terms that what he’s doing is completely wrong. 

    And on the same note, OP’s daughter needs to know she’s absolutely worth more than that, and no one has the right to talk to her that way. 

    May I just give a little shout out to the kid at the table standing up to it? The other boy? Because that must be *hard* and if there’s any opportunity to praise and tell that one he’s doing it Right, I hope OP can take it. I sure hope my kids can do that some day. 

  • Lexi

    I completely agree with Mir – It’s so important to get involved to empower your daughter and show her that she should never have to accept this kind of behaviour.

    Another reason to intervene is that she might be getting conflicting advice/comments from other girls in the class. Even if you refuse to say that it’s because he likes her, there is a good chance that someone else (a friend) may have told her that and without an adult stepping in a saying that is not ok, she still may internalize that message. That might also explain part of her reluctance for you to get involved. Maybe she does feel that his actions are wrong but since her peers have said it’s ok and it’s actually a good/flattering thing, she’s conflicted about what she should feel and how she should act.

    I also think that while it’s very nice that another boy at the table is standing up for her, it’s so important for you to teach her that she can stand up for herself and she doesn’t need another man to stand up for her against harrasement. That would be an equally problematic message for her to internalize.

  • Sarah

    As a middle teacher, if a teacher came to me with these concerns, they would absolutely not be ‘helicoptering’. My helicopter parents are the ones that get mad at me because their child is ONLY getting 95% and not 100% because you know, he’s a 99-100% kind of kid. 

    If you are coming with a legitimate complaint, that is NOT helicoptering. That being said, you can also tell your daughter that either she can advocate herself to her teacher or principal, or you WILL intervene on her behalf and give her a chance to stand up for herself.

    These situations are the WORST because often we teachers have a suspicion that “Johnny” is up to something too and misbehaving, but we have absolutely NO proof because they are sneaky even at that age, and no one is willing to snitch on them. Without a witness or us seeing it with our own eyes, suspicions are not enough to allow us to enforce consequences.

    Also, anything relating to harassment, especially sexual harassment would be referred to administration for discipline, because it goes beyond the consequences that we teachers are allowed to use. (Ex. I am allowed to remove a student from a classroom for one period of the day or give detentions. Administration is the only one that can deal with criminal matters, or give suspensions)  

  • Lucinda

    While not surprised at all by your position, I’m so glad that again you are advocating that we stand up for our children. By doing so, we teach our children what they are worth. It is so important.

    My 8th grade daughter stood up to a boy this week, twice, who has been giving her grief for awhile.  While the ultimate results haven’t been great, and we are still sorting it all out, I’m so proud of her for refusing to be a victim and refusing to accept his behavior as “boys being boys”.  She even sees it as doing him a favor by showing him it isn’t okay. I love that she knows what she is worth and  she is setting an example for others.

  • Carolin

    I have a question; where is the teacher during all of this? It is absolutely 100% sexual threatening harassment but what’s key is that it is taking place during class time, such that another student can hear it. Where is the teacher? Yes, yes I know. They cannot be everywhere, hear everything and I get that. However, this is evidently disrupting 2 kids, not counting the person doing the harassing. That’s 3 kids not attending to their work and having problems of one sort or another.
    I would be asking that question quite loudly during the meeting I would be insisting on, again, loudly and in firm tones, with the HOD, the teacher and the principal. This child, whatever his background, must be summarily removed from my child’s immediate orbit. Expel, suspend, put in therapy, whatevs. If he thinks it’s okay to behave like that, then he needs some form of intervention. Your daughter need never tolerate this and insisting on it being stopped will definitively clarify this to her. Poor child. Horrible. No, you are not a helicopter parent, you are a parent who cares for their young teenage daughter in a positive and thoughtful manner. Go mama bear!

  • Jeanne

    As a high school teacher, I would want to know. It would give me a chance to address a behaviour before it escalates. Also, generally kids aren’t a jerk just one hour of a day. I would be surprised if johnathon wasn’t already on his school’s radar. We want to know the information so we can respond appropriately, keep everyone safe and provide appropriate interventions.

  • E

    Whoa! Let’s pump the brakes for a second. I think the letter write needs to follow the chain of command and encourage her daughter to do the same. Have her daughter talk to the teacher first. If that doesn’t work, mom emails (so their is documentation) the teacher. If that doesn’t work, email teacher & principal both. And so on up the ladder. It is entirely possible the teacher is unaware of what is going on, I think she deserves to have a chance to solve the problem before her boss is involved.

    • Patty

      As a middle school teacher, I support the parent involving administration right now. Because it’s not the teacher’s fault, it’s Jonathan’s. The students are probably sitting in groups of 4-6, working through the day’s math assignment on their own, while the teacher circulates the room, checking in with different groups. Jonathan will not say these things while the teacher is close enough to hear, and she can’t stay next to their table the whole period.
      If it feels like “skipping a step,” and that is worrisome, just make it clear in your email that you don’t see the teacher at fault and in fact your daughter describes that the conversations are happening out of his/her hearing. And that no one else at the table has been willing to say anything. Not your child, not the boy who is sticking up for her, and not the other students that I am assuming are at the table. (And if it looks like any other group that I make, there’s at least one more student and it’s a girl.)
      The reluctance to tell someone what’s going on makes me think a couple things – Jonathan is absolutely acting like this at other times to other people and the kids are intimidated by him. And that the school culture hasn’t been able to break through that reluctance to tattle. (The kids at my school teeter back and forth. Sometimes they are so quick to fill out a signed incident report, and other times you have no idea that there are “teams” of group chat members texting mean things out of school and you’ve just seated the main antagonists right next to each other!)
      Yeesh. Time to go enjoy my well-deserved three week sanity break.

    • Chris

      I would email the teacher and CC (not BCC) the principal. The teacher needs a chance to correct this problem, and this is serious enough that the principal needs to be aware this is going on in the building.  The principal gets things firsthand from you from the get go; you’ll probably get a fast reply since it’s clear the principal has been notified.  

      Also, make sure that any additional emails from you back to the teacher have a CC to the principal.  Sometimes the CC/REPLY ALL is dropped – on purpose or inadvertantly – and you want to keep any email exchanges documented to the principal,whether the principal needs to be directly involved or not.  Sometimes you get a good teacher and a good solution, and the principal should know that too!

      • Chris

        Forgot to add – in this particular case, it sounds like it’s past the point of the student talking to the teacher on her own.

  • MR

    Please intervene! Your daughter seems non committal, not because she doesn’t want you to intervene, but because she doesn’t know what to do. Use this rule of thumb – you aren’t a helicopter parent. Therefore, if you feel like you should intervene, YOU SHOULD. You are getting worked up about this for a reason. A GOOD reason.
    When I was in middle school, the “popular” boys decided it would be funny to start pantsing girls – pulling their pants down in the hallways in front of everyone. The boys thought it was hilarious (it wasn’t). It came to a very quick stop though, because one of our teachers found out about it and went OFF on our class. He was this big guy, an ex football player that all the jocks looked up to, and he was almost screaming at our class about how this was NOT OK, and that it was sexual harassment and how if he had a daughter and this happened to her, he would be calling the police and pressing charges. He was incredibly serious and really got the message across to everyone, boys AND girls, so much so that the word spread around school VERY quickly and it did not happen again. I will never forget that teacher – Mr. Elliot. The kids it happened to weren’t even in our class, nor were the kids who were doing it. But that didn’t matter. We were around when it happened, and he made it clear to everyone that we were responsible for trying to stop things like, this, for helping someone it happened to, and for reporting it immediately. He was awesome and his message was powerful. The whole school learned from it even though only 30 of us heard it directly.

  • Angela

    YEEES to what Mir says!  And don’t just tell the teacher, it’s already gone too far.  Ugh…this makes my stomach hurt to even think about.  I went through daily sexual harrassment and groping by groups of boys in sixth grade (it continued through 8th grade but somewhat less frequently).  It only happened in the hallways, on the bus, outside, or in a classroom when the teacher was out of the room.  I was so humiliated that I was embarrassed to even tell my parents what was really happening, but I did give them a somewhat sanitized version of it.  I was NEVER told that it was okay for me to stand up for myself so I didn’t feel that I was worth protecting, because other people’s feelings were more important than my own, and, I guess, could therefore use me for whatever they wanted.  I was quite timid and shy and not at all the type to stand up and “make waves” that attract more attention.  When I finally did lash out, sometime in 7th grade, I GOT IN TROUBLE, reinforcing my lack of importance as compared to others.  Long story short, I married someone at 20 years old because when I tried to break it off with him he was upset and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.  We’re divorced now, of course.  I’ve been in way too many situations where I allowed myself to be hurt so that I didn’t “hurt” someone else’s feelings.  Took me well into adulthood to realize that NOT allowing someone to abuse you ISN’T HURTING THEIR FEELINGS, and that my feelings are important.  My current husband, who I met at 29 years old, is the first person who made me realize that SOMEONE should have protected me, or at the very least told me that it was ok for me to protect myself, somehow.  He’s the type that would, and has, beat up other guys when he sees them treating girls badly.  I wish someone had helped me.  It still makes me want to cry, I was just a little, shy girl.  I’m 40 now.

  • April

    So when I was that age a boy followed me home every day from the bus stop saying exactly those kinds of things the whole time. I ignored him. After two weeks I told my parents.

    My Dad immediately informed me that was unacceptable and illegal. Because it was a small town, we walked together to the boy’s house. The boy’s father answered. My father said, “Your son is calling my daughter a b**** and harassing her each day on her walk home. I would like to speak to him.” The other dad got his son. My father said to him, “The way you are treating my daughter is harassment. It needs to stop now. If I hear about it ever again, I am immediately calling the cops on you.”

    The boy NEVER bothered me again. My respect for my dad grew 1000 times and I learned to not put up with crap like that for a second more. In high school and college I just said, “Stop harassing me or I’ll call the police.” Worked amazingly well. I wish every girl in my shoes could have that kind of parental response.