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