Here’s a question I get asked a lot: ‘If my little girl/boy gets to see Page 3 in public how do I explain it to her/him?’ and my advice is the same as it would be for anything else that really worries us, which is that we parents have to empower ourselves in order to empower our children. (And by ’empower’ I don’t mean taking our clothes off, just to be clear).
Otherwise, we can be so worried about the damaging effects of something that we pass on that anxiety to our children, and that’s not very helpful.
So to empower ourselves, it really helps to know something of our child’s world. Page 3 is not a deeply-felt issue for a small child as it is for us, children have no context in which to place an image like Page 3, and no overwhelming emotional connection with the subject, they just instinctively know it’s ‘rude.’ That’s something we don’t need to teach them, but just acknowledge. Small children have no sense of the wider meaning of these images, and they will usually move on to another subject quite quickly unless they can see that this is a huge emotional issue for us, in which case they will push and push to find out why. And we don’t want that because our real reasons will not only be inappropriate for a small child, but also totally incomprehensible.
It is a self-evident fact to a child that it is odd to have a naked lady in a newspaper, and we should act as such. We tend to over-explain things to small children, but the more obviously wrong a thing is, the more we need to speak in our ‘goes without saying’ matter-of-fact voice and make short simple statements:
‘Yes, newspapers shouldn’t do that, it’s wrong.’
And unless you want your kids to grow up judging women, don’t critisise the models, keep it to the newspaper:
‘They make girls think they’ll become famous.’
But we don’t have to have all the answers, we can say ‘I really don’t know’ and ‘I’m as confused as you are.’ When something has no explanation, we don’t have to try and make one up, we don’t know everything and we don’t have to pretend to.
If a very young child sees Page 3 and says ‘Why has that lady got no clothes on?’ I would wrinkle my nose and shrug and say something like:
‘Yeah, I don’t know, it’s really odd isn’t it? Some newspapers do that, it’s just silly. It’s not right.’
I would answer any questions seriously with the facts: ‘Yes, newspapers are allowed to do it, don’t know why, but lots of people are trying to change it.’
The damaging effects of images like Page 3 come from unconscious conditioning, and as long as you allow the conversation, listen to and acknowledge children, and let them know that you agree that it’s wrong, then you are awakening their consciousness, and that’s enough, you’re doing a great job.
To have that confidence in our children we also have to manage our own feelings about the issue, because otherwise we are liable to communicate a heavy emotional sub-text, no matter what we say. It’s not that we should pretend not to be angry (they will see through that anyway), just that we need to be able to manage our own anger or distress when we talk to a young child, because the biggest message they will pick up from us is not our words, but our attitude.
So we have to shift our ‘helpless outrage’ kind of anger towards a more indignant ‘I don’t accept this and I will stand up against it’ kind of anger. We have to think ‘How do I want my child to manage this as she/he grows up?’ and do our best to manage it in that way ourselves.
This is how I would like my daughter to deal with the whole world of objectified images of women in the media as she grows up: I would like her to laugh in the face of that sort of stuff, brush it off and see it as ridiculous, I would like her to be brave enough to call it out, take action when she’s older if she sees it in her workplace or anywhere else in public, and be angry and intelligent about its effects on society, but I don’t want her to be personally, damagingly, intimidated by it.
And for my sons: I would like them to ridicule that way of representing women, but not the women themselves, I’d like them to be aware of its effects, and challenge it if they see situations where it is used against girls, in front of their mates but without being all holier-than-thou about it. I would like them to be cool about equality, as if it’s just bloody obvious.
So that’s how I am. That sounds really simple, but in fact I’ve had to really work at it, and I’m still not perfect. It’s lucky that children don’t need perfect parents.
One of the great things about having kids is that they are a fantastic motivation for us to get our own act together and work out our own stuff, because we know they are watching us, and they learn so much more from who we are and what we do rather than what we say. The experience of bringing up children has, over the years, helped me to become far more… ahem…’empowered.’