explicit Love

shame is not love

“What do I tell my 15 year old daughter
who came home with a hickey on her neck?”

Recently I’ve been exploring Quora, a site where people can ask questions of the general public to see the answers. The question above was put out there, and I was astonished – and disgusted – by the number of suggestions that used shame as a parenting technique. I composed my own answer, and realized (as I wrote it) that it’s an important part of my core belief about how you care for those you love.

Ah, the good old days...
Ah, the good old days…

Oh my lord! A hickey! Obviously you have failed completely as a parent. In fact, we should call child services immediately and see if there is anything we can do about the decade and a half of neglect and mistreatment to which you’ve subjected your poor daughter. Please tell me you don’t have any other children who might have been abused in this way? I seriously don’t understand why the government, school system, heck, our entire culture would ever let someone as cruel, neglectful, and exploitative as you procreate at all, much less raise children. And god, what must the neighbors think of you? You LET YOUR DAUGHTER GET A HICKEY!

Enough sarcasm. I hope you get the point: that kind of hyperbolic shame doesn’t work very well, does it? I raised 4 daughters into adulthood, and I have some experience in these kinds of situations. I will tell you the one thing I had to learn the hard way so you don’t have to:

Stop mistaking “influence” for “control

You have lots of the former. You can be someone who helps her feel comfortable, confident, and strong in a culture that is constantly trying to make her feel anything but those things. She’ll see hypersexualized ads while simultaneously seeing idiots like some of these other commenters talk about “slut” and “shame” and “embarrassment.” Bob Dole doing the Pepsi commercial with Britney Spears was probably the low point, but there’s many, many other examples.

But “control”? Buddy, the most oppressive and controlling cultures in the world still have illicit sex. The states that rely the most on shame and ignorance to “control” their teens have the highest rates of teen mothers. When it comes to Biology vs. Your Comfort Level, you’re gonna be outmatched.

The only thing that scare tactics and shame and embarrassment will do is encourage her to hide things like the hickey from you. It will make sure that when there’s something more serious than a hickey, she knows she can’t come to you, because you’ll embarrass her or (worse) hate her or think she’s worthless.

If that’s what you want, then sure, follow those suggestions about embarrassing her, shaming her, making her uncomfortable that other commenters here have suggested.

But don’t fool yourself.

Recognize that you’re not actually concerned with raising a daughter who is informed and secure in her sexuality and resilient to the culture of shame and sexual hypocrisy that is Western civilization. No, you’re actually concerned with your comfort level. You just don’t want to see the evidence that your daughter is, in fact, human. I get that. It’s hard watching them grow up. I cried when my twins first walked into their kindergarten.

And hey, if you choose that route of “If I don’t see it, I won’t have to worry about it”, you’ll probably succeed. You won’t see it. But if you think she’s not going to be human, with human sexual urges that occur when biology, not society, dictates – you’re fooling yourself.

On the other hand, you could just ignore the hickey. I’m sure she noticed it. You don’t have to point it out. Maybe you could just continue to treat her with love and support like (I hope) you do any other day. If the subject of her “love bite” comes up, you could say something as simple as “Well, looks like you had fun,” and leave it at that. You could also take it as an opportunity to reiterate safer sex practices, or even go a step further and remember that sex is supposed to feel good.

Maybe ask her: “How do you feel about that?” And listen. Instead of telling her how she should feel, or projecting the judgement of others (as if you could read their minds) onto her, how about you just listen to what she has to say about it.

If she is upset, again, try some support: “Are ignorant people giving you a hard time? You know they are dumb, right? And probably envious.” And again, listen. Kids aren’t dumb. If she doesn’t want the kind of attention that the hickey gives her, she will take steps on her own to make sure it doesn’t happen again. If you lay down some kind of draconian “You’ll never leave the house again!” it’s basically like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Trust me; this I learned from hard experience.

You could even try and remember that you, too, were once in puberty. “Wow, I remember when I gave my girlfriend a hickey in high school. I felt terrible that people gave her a hard time. It was weird that my friends congratulated me like I’d done something cool-that really didn’t seem fair. We just made sure the hickeys never showed after that.”

That’s influence. That’s keeping her aware that this is an external event and the external consequences are real and something that can be talked about, but that it doesn’t change who she is or your love and support for her.

It’s your choice – it’s every parent’s choice. We all do the best we can. But I spend a good deal of my professional life trying to help adults get over the shame and hurt that their parents instilled in them when they were first becoming sexually aware.

It would be nice if we could start doing better.

2 thoughts on “shame is not love”

  1. I can not tell you how refreshing this was to read. Being raised in the stuffy atmosphere I know that you know all to well, I only pray that I can practice what I have learned here for my own daughters.

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