Almost every day, new allegations of sexual harassment are in the headlines. The #metoo campaign has exposed the abusive behavior of power-brokers in Hollywood and DC while victims, who have been silenced for too long, find their voices again.
One parent — despairing at the onslaught of depressing headlines and salacious stories — recently asked me, “What can we do to raise boys not to act like this? How can we protect our girls from a culture like this?” While we can never control every variable, the truth is that parents can do a lot to raise young men who can be respectful of women and young women who know how they deserve to be treated. Interestingly, the answer to both questions involves the same two things.
Attend to Attachment
Research consistently shows that a child’s attachment style predicts both how likely a child is to victimize others as he or she grows up as well as how likely it is that a child will be able to set appropriate boundaries with those who try to hurt them.
There are three basic attachment styles (secure, anxious, and avoidant) that determine a child’s basic sense of how they should both treat others and expect to be treated by others. Which attachment style a particular child develops is determined by how promptly, generously, and consistently his or her parents respond to the child’s emotional needs.
Securely–attached children are raised by parents who are generous with affection, employ gentle discipline that teaches good behavior instead of merely punishing bad behavior, encourage healthy emotional expression, and model the healthy give-and-take involved in loving relationships. Securely attached children are naturally empathic, and are naturally repulsed by the idea of using or hurting another person. They also have a gut-level sense of when they are not being treated properly and so are much more likely to sense and avoid dangerous situations, set boundaries early when someone tries to take advantage of them, and be confident about seeking help when they feel like they are in over their heads.
Anxiously-attached children are raised by parents who tend to be conditional about giving affection and praise, tend to use harsh, emotionally-driven discipline that blames rather than teaches, and tend to be too distracted by their own problems to consistently respond to the child’s emotional needs. This child grows up feeling like it is their job to make other people meet their needs and it is their fault when other people don’t treat them well. As adults, anxiously attached children often have a hard time recognizing unhealthy relationships. They tend not to notice that others are treating them badly until it has gone too far. And then, when they do notice, they tend to blame themselves, thinking they somehow caused the problem or even deserve the poor treatment. This makes it difficult for them to set limits, or seek help.
Avoidantly-attached children are raised by parents who are unaffectionate and emotionally shut-off, tend to use heavy-handed approaches to discipline, and tend to leave children to themselves. Avoidantly attached children grow up to become adults who, because they have never been taught to connect emotionally or spiritually with others, over-emphasize the importance of sex. The more seriously avoidant a child’s attachment style is, the more likely that child will be a bully, a sex-addict, or, in the extreme, a sociopath who takes joy in hurting others.
If you want to raise a child who knows how to treat others well and knows how he or she deserves to be treated, the most important thing you can do is teach your child what a healthy relationship looks like by engaging in those practices that promote secure attachment.
Love vs. Use
The second most important thing a parent can do to raise children who know how to treat others well and how they deserve to be treated is to teach kids, from an early age, that everything we do to another person is either ordered toward loving them or using them. When we are affectionate and respectful, when we do things to build them up, or look for ways to make their lives easier or more pleasant, we love others and help them become the persons they are meant to be. By contrast, when we disregard others, when we are critical, mean, or derogatory, when we use people as a means to some end, or act in ways that say we don’t care about what they are going through, we treat people as things to be used, abused, or neglected.
As Catholics, we believe that the only appropriate response to another person is love, never use. Children as young as 4 or 5 can understand the difference between love and use in relationships.
Parents who foster healthy attachment and teach their child the difference between loving and using another person from the earliest days not only are prone to raise healthy kids. They strike a blow against a culture that sees people as objects and relationships as exchanges where the powerful use the less powerful as a means to their selfish ends.