How would you react if you received a call from the school psychologist, one afternoon while at work, telling you that your daughter reported being touched in the breast and privates by a boy?
When I got that call on Wednesday, I wished it was as simple as getting angry, finding the boy, flogging him, and knowing that my daughter’s honor had been restored. Isn’t that the manly…the fatherly thing…to do?
When I got home I actually completely messed it up with my daughter, and it wasn’t until later that evening, when I spoke with my girlfriend, that I was finally able to do a 180 and respond appropriately to the complicated situation it was. But more about that in a bit.
You see, the question of whether something actually happened is both the most important question in this situation, and the one question that will never get answered. The boy that my daughter accused is not only one of those immature 7th grade boys who is not yet thinking about girls or sex, but like my daughter has special needs which make it difficult for him to understand what he was being accused of.
On the other hand, my daughter is constantly thinking about romance. She desperately wants to be loved. She wants to be popular. She wants boys to like her. She has called various boys, who were clueless to the match, her boyfriend. Her past, stemming from the neglect and abandonment she had from her birth and foster families, make that desire for acceptance a very strong driver of her behavior.
My first instinct was to ask her why she was making this story up about the boy. She had tried to get some other kids in trouble earlier in the year, so I saw this situation as possibly being similar. I told her how serious the accusation was and how damaging it could be to both the boy and to her. I told her, thinking about the time her mother falsely filed a restraining order against me, that these situations come down to which person is more believable, and her past at the school made her story questionable. My daughter was adamant that something had happened, and she went to her room and cried. I emailed the school and all of the support folks that work with her how the interaction had gone.
It wasn’t my best moment. I was torn between wanting to believe her, and knowing that my daughter had made up stories in the past. I also know, from being a long time educator, that kids need space to figure out how to get someone to like them. Think back to when you were 13. Did you know how to get the person you had a crush on to like you? Kids are awkward, and we adults have to be careful about criminalizing every attempt at experimentation. It’s tricky keeping kids safe, while helping them figure out healthy sexuality.
When my girlfriend came later that evening she set me straight. She helped me to understand that it wasn’t our job to figure out the truth, but to make sure that both kids were safe. I rewound, went up to my daughter’s room, and told her that I wish I had approached our first conversation differently. Copied below is the text of the email I sent to the school and support personnel after my conversation:
After thinking about this a bit more, and also speaking with my girlfriend, I think I may have taken the wrong approach with [my daughter]. I am backtracking with her and telling her that I believe her when she says that something happened to make her uncomfortable, but there is no way for all of us to know what that was, and there is no way for the school and us to know for sure what the truth is. However, what we the adults can do is make sure that she learns how things could have gone better for her…How her timing in reporting the incident, and how her previous behavior at school played a role in whether others believed her…but ultimately that our job is to make sure that she and the boy feel safe at school.
I don’t think I did a good job of making sure that she feels safe to come forward in the future if something happens to her, and this is what I am trying to handle right now.
Tomorrow, we need to figure out how to make sure she is not in contact with this boy and that we need to monitor this in the future, so she is safe.
As parents our primary responsibility is to make sure that our kids are safe, and to be their strongest advocate. Sometimes we need a redo, and that is ok.