Can you imagine a user manual for a product that tells you:
- If something goes wrong and you try to tell us about it, we won’t believe you. We’ll tell you “That’s ridiculous!”
- If something goes wrong, you tell us about it, and we believe you, we’ll immediately stop listening to you and start telling you why it’s all your fault.
- If something goes wrong and we find out about it, we will punish you.
And yet that’s the user manual that many parents, teachers, and adult authorities give young women when it comes to handling their relationships with men.
The user manual we give to young men isn’t much better:
- If something goes wrong and you tell us about it, we’ll laugh at you.
- If something goes wrong and we find out about it, we’ll tell you to “man up.”
- If something goes really wrong, however, don’t worry about it because we understand that it’s always someone else’s fault and they should buy you a brand new product. You’re entitled!
(NOTE: I’m a tough, pragmatic person. I read the user manual for girls early on, and realized that I was pretty much on my own to develop some good judgment and defenses. My long-term relationships have been with kind, principled men; my encounters with jerks have been few. But, on those very few occasions that I encountered a stalker or an attacker and turned to people for help, I was pretty much handed the ol’ user manual and put on hold. I won’t go into detail about any of these experiences because, as the user manual explains, there are still plenty of people who’ll believe it’s my fault that anything bad ever happened to me.)
As a communications person, I’m puzzled as to why more people aren’t asking where young men and women have come by the attitudes that I’m hearing bemoaned in the aftermath of the Santa Barbara murders. There’s a lot of muttering about “society” and “the media” but I’m not buying it. Sure, the ideas from my “user manuals” are pervasive in the media. But, sadly, I find that most parents, teachers, and workplace advisors are the most egregious proponents of user manual philosophy.
I hear a girl mutter that she doesn’t want to go out with a boy because she thinks he’s creepy. Her parents reprimand her and argue that “Oh, he’s a very nice boy.” and “Oh, he’s Mrs. Johnson’s nephew.” — in effect, telling her that her perceptions are all wrong. I hope that somewhere a mom or dad is asking “Why do you think he’s creepy?” and listening to the answer — listening, instead of leaping in and barking “Well, then you need to stay away from people like that!” and “I don’t want you hanging around at that mall!”
Parents I’ve talked with about these frustrating situations insist that they’re reduced to barking because their kids won’t listen to them. Listen to them? Often their kids aren’t even talking to them. I have a good idea why that’s the case.
Again, putting on my communications hat, I hear parents arguing with their teenage daughters in a way that completely undermines the parents’ credibility. Their “arguments” wouldn’t hold up for a second in a business environment, so why should a wary teenager be convinced by vague, self-serving statements like:
“I just don’t like that boy.”
“I think his family seems a little…odd.”
“I just think you could do better.”
In business communications, people are impressed by facts. Teenagers are, as well. I’ve noticed that an adult is likely to get a glimmer of recognition, or plant a seed, with observations like:
“I’m concerned about the way he treats his dog. It was limping.”
“I’ve noticed that he’s usually late.”
“I heard what he said about your friend Susan. She was upset and embarrassed.”
Even if the reaction is vehement denial, the picture remains.
Another reason to use frank, clear language with teenagers (and younger children): It gives them a vocabulary to talk with you about what’s going on in their lives.
In 1981 I heard sex educator Dr. Mary Calderone address a large audience of pre-school teachers, social workers, and police on the topic of sexual abuse of very young children. Teacher after teacher stood up with stories about children who begged the teacher not to let “Uncle Bill” drive them home from day care, or who attempted adult sexual behavior with their puzzled peers. What, the teachers asked, could they do for these children? How could they start a conversation with parents or social workers about…you know…sex.
Calderone said that the first step was to be clear and concrete in the language they used with children and adults.
“Call a spade and spade, and a penis and penis,” were her exact words. She pointed out that it was unlikely that children would be able to tell an adult what was being done to them if the adult got upset and punished them for using the words to describe their experiences.
There was a general nodding of heads in agreement. But as the discussion continued, not a single teacher in the room could bring herself to say the word “penis.” And my guess is that, at the end of the day, one of them once again turned a frightened child over to “Uncle Bill.”
The child got the message that no one wanted to hear about his or her frightening experience, and “Uncle Bill” got the message that he could just keep on molesting children.
Let’s rewrite the user manuals, folks.