I had a nerve-wracking incident come up the other day – an email from the school counselor expressing concern about something my daughter did. Very simply, in a hall bathroom she shared a stall with another student. They each went to the bathroom and then proceeded to play around in the bathroom instead of going back to class right away.
This warranted a discussion with the principal for both kids. My mind immediately went to work and I created a narrative of what they must be thinking. And I got angry. And quickly. In my head, I was sure that the main issue had to be that they peed in the same stall together. That this is inappropriate. That goodness forbid kids participate in a non-sexual activity as non-sexual beings in a shared space.
As a sexuality educator, trained curriculum developer and an advocate for the rights of kids and adolescents in a shunned sexualized world, let me be clear about a couple things here. I assumed that these kids were seen as bad for peeing in the same stall because in this society, naken bodies are wrong. And it’s not because these kids were inherently doing something out of their development, it’s because society assumes they are. As adults, we have lived past childhood into a sexualized world and body. And we can’t seem to unsee that, even in our kids. What they did was completely normal, but we still make it so much more than that.
After talking with my kid, it was even more evident that these two kids were incredibly respectful and responsible in the space they shared. There was an invitation to share a stall, without pressure. With consent. And they respected privacy boundaries by each turning their backs while the other actually used the toilet.
To me, the issue was that they broke a school rule. There is only one kid per stall. And they are not to play in the bathroom. This alone is not a principal needed response. It’s a simple discipline response, a reminder even, to not play in places you shouldn’t.
But I was led to believe that there was a larger issue here, that I should be concerned and that my kid is at fault because she invited the friend into the stall.
How often do we as parents share a stall with our kids? How often do siblings share stalls? Young friends? My kid and the friend have shared a stall before, on playdates, under parental supervision of myself and the other parent. And they respected and set personal boundaries there as well.
I know that the school needs to take things seriously because there could be a parent on the opposite side of me – seeing this through a sexualized lens and panicking. But isn’t that the problem? The system is failing us here. If this is not handled correctly, she may in fact feel shame and confusion about why it’s not ok to be around a friend in a bathroom when she did all that she has learned to establish her own needs and boundaries. Why is that not enough?
This morning, she said to me that she’s never been to the principal’s office before because she is not “usually bad.” I told her that she did nothing bad, that she broke a school rule and that they want to be sure she understands. But she doesn’t understand how she’s in more trouble than usual. I tried to explain that sometimes people get nervous and upset around bodies and that this might be the case here. I want her to know that many rules are set because some people believe that kids can do bad things, that we in this family believe are not bad at all. And instead are normal kid things to do. And that sometimes, these two don’t match up.
I told her to remember that I always have her back. That when I think they are wrong at school, that I will tell them. And she plans to apologize for playing around in the bathroom and not following the stall rules.
I fully realize that as you read this, this may trigger you. You may disagree with me or how I have handled it. I invite you to challenge yourself on this. What is coming up for you? How would you handle it? How would you protect your kid?
See there isn’t really a right way or a wrong way for us in this. But we can work together to be sure that our kids do not experience shame around their bodies. And that their normal stages of development are not mistaken for deviency. Kids are explorers and in fact so many behaviors that we deem as sexual among adults are simply play among kids. Playing doctor. Showing body parts. Touching one’s own body parts. Making dolls share a bed together or be naked together. Kids are understanding the world around them. And failing to let them explore a completely natural and normal part of their development can be harmful. It can lead to shame, silence, and a lack of communication when they do participate in sexual behaviors. I am not willing to take that risk. I know that feeling all too well. I think we can do better. My kid deserves better.
Follow Up: I did speak with the school and the feeling is mutual that their reactions are often rooted in the fear of the parents. I understand and also I don’t. I challenged them to consider that this might be the larger problem. And I asked that when my kid is spoken to that they are careful not to create a sense of shame. They assured me that this would not be the case.
I also spoke with the other parent involved. And I think it’s important to note that so many of us parents are in this together, but we often don’t talk about it. We can ask more of these schools. We can make it so our kids are not shamed as a result of worry of what a parent might do. We can make it so that being a kid is normal and that when parents struggle with an incident or what’s happening with their kid, then we work together through the situation among the adults, not through our kids.
I do dream of a world for this. And look forward to when we get there. Reaching out to the other parents is so important folks. If the other parent was not on the same page as me, I could have used it as an opportunity to connect on what’s best for our kids and to be sure that both kids are safe, loved, and able to move through this. To create a stream of honest communcation when normally there is so little. And we could have still disagreed and it would all be okay.
And sure, the other parent could have been mad and asked for punishment. But also, I am not responsible for other’s reactions. We can only hold our own and offer up love and support along the way. The goal is not to be the same, but to communicate. And to take care of our kids as we see fit. I am responsible for ensuring my kid’s behavior ensures both her own and the safety of others. And sharing a bathroom with another 6 year old, with consent, and with agreed upon privacy, is not a safety issue.