A few days ago, I got an email from my son’s school: He was in the principal’s office again. The note came at 8:30 p.m., which is an odd time for the principal herself to be emailing.
This time, it was serious.
This time, he was sent there because he was accused of inappropriately touching a girl. Her mother called the principal and told her that my son touched her inappropriately and she was uncomfortable around him.
The thoughts in my head were scary, awful... what had he done? Was she OK? All sorts of articles I've read recently filled my mind. Was this a sign? The thing that said he was really a BAD kid?I felt sick. Scared. And then, deeply ashamed.
He’s only 9 years old. He still watches Ninjago and begs me to watch DanTDM. He doesn’t play Grand Theft Auto or have a cell phone. He plays hockey on a team that’s half girls and half boys and he doesn’t think that anyone is better or worse because of their gender. They’re all Maple Leafs.
What could he have done that was so bad?
Does he even have a clue what he touched? I knew that I hadn’t told him about sex… so did that mean the same thing? Was it a big touch, or a small one? Did he mean it?
Is he OK?
What the heck happened in the 60 seconds from reading this note to feeling these emotions?
I watch the news. I feel the bitterness of knowing women who have been hurt by men like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. And God knows, it would kill me if my son turned out to be someone like them.
I know, like you, how sick I felt when Jerry Sandusky was outted. The hordes of people who knew and were complacent in not putting him away sooner disgusted me. And in those moments, a part of me died in fear, thinking that my son could be a predator-in-the-making.
The mere words “he touched her” in the principal’s note made my entire body go cold. But in my race to react, I remembered that I needed to be a parent and not react. I needed information. I needed his side of the story.
So I asked, “Honey, what happened at school yesterday?”
And he told me a very different tale than the principal’s note. He told me that he and the girl were playing soccer and they both went for the ball to block the goal. When they did, he accidentally touched her private parts.
I said, “Did you mean to do that?”
He said, “No, I was just trying to block the goal. So was she.”
End of story.
The truth — according to witnesses and the little girl herself — was that two 9-year-old kids were innocently playing soccer and they both tried to block a goal, and she was touched — by my son.
He didn’t hurt her. He didn’t reach out and try to touch her. It was an accident.
As I moved away from feeling terrified that he had hurt her, I felt a deeper sense of shame. Why did I think those things were possible for my son?
What has happened to our world that my instinctive reaction was that somehow he did something wrong?
That yet another male hurt yet another female?
That one more victim was made?
That her word carried more weight than his side of the story?
That the boys are always to blame?
How have we become so quick to judge?
I think it’s really hard to be a parent today. The normal childhood exploration that my generation went through would get you expelled by today’s standards. As I nursed my wounds, I shared my son’s story with friends, and their stories made me feel better and worse.
“There was a kid at my daughter’s school that was sent home on a two-day suspension because he kissed a girl — he was in the first grade”
“There was a boy at my son’s school who was sent home for a one-day suspension because he hugged a girl and she was upset about it.”
Hugs and kisses on the cheeks are now suspendable offenses.
Where is that kind of thinking going to land us when kids are in middle or high school?
What I realized is that in all of my worrying, one basic ingredient was missing, intent.
My son never intended to hurt her. He never reached for her. He never had a malicious thought other than to block the goal.
Doesn’t this happen to athletes all the time?
One friend shared, “As an athlete, you just get touched, it’s part of the game. If I thought every person who accidentally grazed my breast or touched my butt was trying to touch me, I could never play. I’d be too distracted to be a good athlete.”
By the time I finally spoke with the principal, everyone was in agreement that my son had done nothing wrong — the principal, the little girl, and her family. The incident was nothing more than an accident between friends who were playing sports together.
The principal did say she wanted to use this opportunity to teach my son how to make a proper apology. I wanted to ask for what, but that seemed an odd question given that he did touch her. But, I felt a strong need to make sure that he was clear what he was apologizing for. It was important to me that he not feel shame or guilt for a legitimate accident.
All boys and men are not in the wrong because of what bad men do.
My son didn’t intend to hurt his friend.
But he did touch her by accident — and in the same way that we apologize for bumping into someone, that should be addressed.
But, that is all.
It’s hard to raise boys. I’m sure many will argue that it’s hard to raise girls, too. Thankfully, I have one of each.
As I thought about what I would have done if my daughter came home and said someone touched her inappropriately, I would have come out of my skin. Called the school. Asked for help. Advocated for her, just as this mom did.
And thinking back, every pediatrician’s appointment my kids have had since they were 4 years old, the doctor has always said, “I want to remind you that no one is allowed to touch your body without permission. The only people who can touch you are your mom and dad. Today, I’m going to do an exam with your Mom here because she says it’s OK. But you can tell me to stop and you can always tell someone to not touch you. That’s called 'consent' and it’s your body, and you are in charge of your body. Does that make sense?”
Maybe that’s all the little girl thought. Maybe she remembered a good doctor telling her for the past 5 years that no one can touch you without your permission. And maybe, just maybe, that’s all this was.
And as a Mom, I would support my daughter advocating for her right to not be touched.
So, well done, Mom. And I’m sorry my son accidentally touched your daughter.
But truth be told, we have to get a handle on what is abusive and what is not. It’s not a popular opinion — and lots of people are fearful of “blaming the victim” — but truthfully, had this been handled in a way that caused my son to feel afraid, ashamed, or otherwise awful about an accident, that would have been completely unfair to him.
He’s not Harvey Weinstein. Or Bill Cosby. Or Jerry Sandusky.
He’s a 9-year-old boy who deserves his innocence as much as anyone else does.
Melanie Gorman is the SVP of YourTango Experts and a business coach for counselors and healers. Her content has appeared in Huffington Post, Yahoo!, Bustle and Thought Catalog. You can follow her on Twitter.