“I want to have the three-letter word with her! It would make me the happiest man in the world!”
“You want a kid? You wanna have a kid with her? You wanna marry her?”
“No, stupid! Not that three-letter word; the other one!”
At the time I’m writing this, it’s been a little over a week since he said that about her; he being a boy who looks to be around 12; her being my 10-year-old daughter, Marley.
We see him every time we go to the park. He’s that kid who you imagine didn’t walk there on his own, but you never see him with or near any adults. You only hear his mouth and his stupid laugh.
Well, maybe it wasn’t stupid before I realized that he talked to Marley’s chest, and not her eyes. The new mounds bouncing around on my daughter’s chest mesmerized him, and he wanted to have the other three-letter word with my daughter—sex (in case you, like he, don’t want to say the actual word).
I wanted to punch Stupid Laugh Boy in the throat. And then smash his coke-bottle glasses. But saner heads prevailed. I did not touch him or his glasses.
I did and will continue to do something ever more fulfilling; I’ll continue raising both of my daughters to be aware of their right to confidently address any assertions made toward them, particularly when it comes to their bodies.
I look at my oldest girl and I see what other people are seeing, but I also see what she is navigating at this point in her journey:
Her breasts are growing. Her legs are lengthening. She’s paying more attention to how I style her locs. Her body is transitioning from a gangly, somewhat awkward form, to a curvy space with parts made visibly strong by way of her growing love for soccer.
And she’s particularly concerned and curious about her new bouncy parts that garner attention from a variety of eyes.
Because we practice Radical Self-Expression, we’ve never shied away from conversations about body awareness in our household. Now, as we manage Marley’s rapid transition, I’m grateful that Kris and I—as her parents—chose that route.
It’s important for parents to recognize that even if you want to stay in the land of age and stage-appropriate introductions to body awareness, sex, and sexuality—the rest of the world is already assigning those subjects to your child in ways you may not have chosen yourself.
So you may as well deliberately take on the primary role in the dissemination and interpretation of that narrative, because the conversations are already being had. On school buses, on playgrounds, at sleepovers, and online.
And if you wait until the “right age,” or whatever you consider to be the “appropriate” time, you might be too late.
By avoiding the topics of body awareness and sexuality, we set our girls up to be ill-equipped to manage their emotions and to confidently express whatever they need to feel both comfortable around and respected by their peers.
And I say our girls because that’s all I know. By no means am I diminishing the need for dialogue on body awareness and sexuality in our boys; I just know less about the process of boys’ physical changes and needs, so I’m sticking to the areas where I can speak from experience.
That experience has been the focus for the past decade of my life, and it comes roller coaster style, complete with sudden turns, belly flops, and plenty opportunities to walk my talk as a woman whose core values include curiosity and self-expression.
As I watch my daughter navigate her new body, I do my best to stay present so that I can be aware of what she might need from me in any given moment.
Notice how I said what she might need instead of what she needs? I don’t presume to already know Marley or her sister, Sage. Sure, I know their tendencies, their habits, and their preferences; but those things are changing.
In parenting, as in many other relationships, we do better when we choose to use what we observe, instead of what we think we know.
For me, that choice is as a result of me starting out with the Should Be’s and being taught by my daughters that they did not appreciate or respond well to that choice. They lash out when I presume, but they share openly when I observe, ask questions, and consider what actually is instead of just what I think should be.
I feel a deep sense of compassion for both of my daughters as they enter this stage. I remember my own body awareness journey and how inadequate it can lead a girl to feel. I fear being too open with my girls in some areas, or too closed off in others, and I end up entangled.
But through it all, I’ve identified some methods to creating support and raising confident, mindful, fully expressed women.
So here are four ways to help her navigate her new journey.
1. Open Dialogue
If your 8-year-old asks you about oral sex, your Should Be filter may cringe at the idea and decide that your child is too young to be exposed to that particular topic.
But we know that elementary school children are fully aware of oral sex. At that age, they’re already mocking what they know or fully engaging.
Were you to choose the Should Be route, you’d be leaving your child with a deficiency in dialogue, causing her to draw on wrong or poorly framed information on the sexual acts.
Consider all the opportunities you’d be leaving for other people—peers, the siblings of peers, and adults—to fill in those answers for your child.
It’s also important to be mindful about punishing your daughter for asking uncomfortable questions.
Unfortunately, when it comes to curiosity around topics of sex, sexuality, and human body, many adults create a narrative of guilt when it comes to children. Why is she thinking about that? What might she do if she knows more about this so early?
You’re not preserving or protecting her by shying away from tough questions. Instead, you’re telling her to search alone, to gather and sort on her own, and to count you out of her list of resources.
Sports help girls to recognize their bodies’ functions and not just its form.
Soccer is helping Marley see her body in new ways. Now she knows what her legs do, and how they help her do something she loves. She knows how different foods cause her to play and to feel. She now understands body as function, and not just form.
Athletic activities can also help your daughter to see just how ridiculous and impossible the notions of beauty that riddle the media can be.
We protect what we respect, and so as they come into the knowing of their bodies and realize what they’re capable of, our girls also increase the urgency around protecting their bodies.
Sports can help our girls recognize and speak up when their bodies are being objectified. They can help them define respect for themselves, and not by what society says should or should not be when it comes to a girl’s or a woman’s body.
My daughters and I look at our bodies together. We literally stand in front of the bathroom mirror, naked, and talk about what we see.
I try to remember to listen more than I talk, and I am honest about my own physical insecurities. I tell them how I nurture myself with communities like See Body: Love Self, and how important it is to celebrate your body with healthy choices.
And when Marley tells me that she’s “weirded out” by her own breasts, or that she caught herself wondering whether her breasts and butt should be smaller or bigger, I don’t chastise her.
Instead, I tell her that it’s normal to questions things, and that I’m proud of her for being willing to express what she thinks about.
Let your daughter see you naked. And encourage her to look at her own naked body. When we take the “newness” out of seeing our naked bodies, we can work at appreciating it just as it is, and we send that message to our girls as well.
4. Documentaries and Books
Marley, Sage, and I have watched Miss Representation (a poignant documentary about media’s portrayal of women, and its impact on young people) several times.
Since then, both girls are constantly asking us “do you notice” questions: Do you notice that in anime and manga that the women always have big breasts that are all pushed up, but they’re supposed to be warriors?! How can they protect their bodies if they’re putting their breasts out like that?”
This leads to dialogue about topics like feminism and sexism in anime and manga, which again, helps her to examine context and make more conscious choices over time about what she takes in.
Actively seek out documentaries, books, and live dialogue around topics that your daughter will no doubt face.
Create a running list of your own go-to resources for open dialogue on body awareness and sexuality, and make time to share them with your daughter.
As parents, our daughters can be either the beneficiaries or the victims of our own experiences.
We have the ability to consistently help our daughters navigate their bodies’ shifts by prioritizing our own mental shifts.
Your own imperfect relationship with your body is exactly what your daughters needs to experience. You can use what you’re learning as you commit to your own healing process.
You can encourage your daughter to speak openly about how she feels as her body changes. You can be compassionate and consistent in your efforts to help her be willing to love her body, to explore sexuality in safe spaces, to define safe spaces, and to speak up when her idea of a safe space for her body is being compromised or threatened in any way.
As a parent, you can make your daughter’s body awareness journey a positive one.
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Akilah S. Richards is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a six-time author, digital content writer, and lifestyle coach who writes passionately about self-expression, womanhood, modern feminism, location independence and the unschooling lifestyle. Connect with Akilah on Instagram, Tumblr, or her #radicalselfie e-home, radicalselfie.com. Read her articles.