I chaperoned a party at my son's junior high Friday night, and since the 300 or so kids who showed up were--from what I could tell--really tame, I had a lot of time (3 hours) to simply observe and think.
I've been doing a lot of research on teen abuse recently. By teen abuse, I mean teen-on-teen abuse. I mean boyfriends manipulating, controlling, belittling, and physically hurting their girlfriends. The statistics are terrifying. A survey taken in 2006 indicates the following facts among others:
1. 1 in 3 girls who have been in a serious relationship say they've been concerned about being physically hurt by their partner.
2. 1 in 5 teens who have been in a serious relationship report being hit, slapped, or pushed by a partner.
3. More than 1 in 4 teenage girls in a relationship report enduring repeated verbal abuse.
4. 24% of 14- to 17-year-olds know at least one student who has been the victim of dating violence, yet 81% of parents either believe teen dating violence is not an issue or admit they don't know if it is an issue.
And one of the most disturbing ones...
5. 80% of girls who have been physically abused in their intimate relationship continue to date their abuser.
Is your stomach churning? Moms, do you think your daughters aren't at risk? Do you think you have a good enough relationship with them that they would talk with you, ask you for help, never get into this kind of situation in the first place? Because if you do, there's a really good chance you're wrong. My mother was.
I've been fortunate enough to have been able to keep in touch with my best friend from sixth grade. Her name is Lisa. She was my biggest cheerleader growing up, and I adored her. I still do. I was the outspoken one; she was the quiet one. I was the one who made enemies easily and often intentionally; she was the one who told me when I was right and when I went too far. She, to this day, describes me as strong. I was strong when I was 11. I was strong when I was 18. And when I hit 19? I forgot who I was. I forgot for three years. Actually, I forgot for even longer, because it took longer than three years to respect myself again.
Lisa would never have thought I would subject myself to what I did. My mother wouldn't have thought it. My father wouldn't have thought it. No one who knew me would have. It sneaked up on me, and I wasn't prepared.
But my daughter will be prepared--or she'll be as prepared as I can possibly make her. And my sons will be prepared as well to know what is and is not acceptable behavior. They are growing up as the sons of a man who treats his wife with respect and love and concern, even when arguing with her. They'll know emotions are what they need to control, and not the person they supposedly love.
And all of this preparation starts not at 18 when a child leaves home, but from a young age.
This is what I was thinking about while watching the girls dance on Friday night to "power" songs--to songs about standing up for yourself, about realizing you don't really know what love is at 15, about being bold and courageous and feisty. And I worried about the disconnect between them shouting and laughing, and them possibly being one of those statistics above.
I finished reading a book the other night--a popular young adult novel. Love Interest #1 shoves the main character around, and her best friend responds with, "He was drunk. He wasn't himself." Even if the author didn't mean it, even if as a reader I'm supposed to dismiss the best friend as an idiot, why couldn't the friend instead have said, "He what?! End it, babe. It's over"? The answer is that the story wouldn't have turned out like it did. Love Interest #2 wouldn't have had to rescue her. Do I blame the author for perpetuating this notion that girls have to be saved by a boy? No. But I do wish more authors would have the girl save herself! Have her jump up and down with her friends to a loud, booming song at a dance. Have her feel empowered and important and beautiful. Then have her tell the boyfriend to go to hell when he criticizes what she wore or tells her she needs to lose weight or, God forbid, lays a hand on her.
When I was in sixth grade, my seventh-grade boyfriend told me he loved me. My response? I hung up on him. He called back and asked why I did that. I said, "Because I'm 11 and you're 12. We don't know what love is! Don't ever say that to me again!"
So here's to more girls recognizing what love is--and what it isn't. And here's to us teaching them.