Ten days after I first arrived in Finland, back in 1994, I met a girl. Not very long after that I met her mother Kexy, a civil servant who was a serious horsewoman, and had hunted with her father when she was younger. Rosy, the girl, told me that her mum was nervous about meeting me; most Finns are pretty shy. She also told me what had happened the first time she had brought a boy home. It wasn’t planned; they were passing her home and just popped in to pick up a book. There was Kexy, sat at the kitchen table, cleaning a 9mm semi-automatic pistol.
You can imagine the effect on the boy.
I recently posted a link to this article on my Facebook profile, and it gathered quite a lot of comments, mostly from people who seem to agree with the basic premise, and some who are very much of the “I’ve got a gun and a shovel” school of parenting.
This lead me to think a bit more about the issue.
I totally understand the visceral satisfaction of the idea of being able to murder anyone who hurts your child. I remember walking through the park near my home with my 3-month old firstborn in her pram. A young man on a motorbike (which aren’t allowed in this park) came blasting by. If I’d had a gun, I would probably have shot him. The black rage that came over me at his daring to put my baby at risk was so deep, so fundamental, that only smashing the person’s face through the back of their head would have assuaged it in the moment.
It would, of course, have been entirely inappropriate, and instead of taking my kids to the park, they’d be visiting me in prison. It’s hard being a good parent when you’re at home; it must be way harder parenting from jail.
If a person is threatening your child’s life, and killing them is the best way to stop it, then by all means, taking their life is justified. But the “gun and shovel” meme isn’t about that. It’s about how fathers want to protect their daughters, not from assault, or rape, or anything like that. We want to protect them from sex. Because we (most of us, I assume) remember what it was like to be a teenage boy, and how desperate we were to get into the knickers of the girls we went out with. It was, in the 80s at least, still a truism that girls had it, but didn’t want to give it; boys wanted it, and had to persuade them to give it up. “It” here being sex, of course. There was also a pretty universal assumption that girls didn’t want sex, and so would only do it basically as a favour to the boy, or under some kind of coercion from the relatively benign but still horrible ‘he won’t love me if I don’t’ to worse forms of influence like drink and drugs.
So let’s unpack some of these assumptions.
1) Girls don’t want sex. This is just not true in most cases. Indeed, for centuries it was believed that women wanted sex MORE than men did. So let’s move on.
2) Whether the girl has sex or not is up to her father or her boyfriend. NO! NO! NO! It is, or should be, up to the people doing it: her and her boyfriend, assuming they are both of legal age. Of course, good parenting includes educating kids to understand the possible consequences of sex, both good and bad. But the core problem here is that in the gun and shovel scenario, the father and the boyfriend have agency, but the girl does not. So whether the woman has sex or not is down to an agreement between these two males. This was normal in the Stone Age, but it is an utterly disgusting pattern of thought in this day and age.
3) Sex = assault. Umm, no. So long as there is informed consent all round, sex does not equal assault. So while murdering a rapist has a certain appeal, murdering your daughter’s boyfriend should not. And if the daughter in question consented freely, then while it may be appropriate to counsel her against it if you think it’s not in her best interests, the boyfriend is innocent in this.
4) In the case of a woman being assaulted or coerced by a man, you should focus on the man… You see it in films and tv shows all the time; when a woman is hurt by somebody, her husband/brother/father/whoever doesn’t stay by her to help her get better; he charges off to wreak his revenge. As if it’s him who has been hurt. But the loving thing to do is to attend to the woman, not race off after the assailant; and only go after the son of a bitch if that’s what the person sinned against wants you to do.
So what is my plan, with my two daughters?
1) Sex education. That’s number one. If they know what they are doing, then they can grant or withhold informed consent.
2) Self-esteem. I want my kids to feel that they do not have to do anything to ingratiate themselves with anyone, or do anything they don’t want to. They can say no. If they have been brought up in an environment in which their desires, opinions, and consent matters, they are that much less likely to put up with abuse of any kind.
3) Self defence. Bad stuff does happen, but my kids will know at least the basics of how to spot bad situations before they kick off, and have the wit to walk away in time. I’ll teach them physical skills if they are interested, but by themselves, those skills are useless if you’re not willing to use them.
4) Support. They should know that no matter what happens, I (and my wife of course) will support them. That ranges from picking them up from a party at 3am, no questions asked, so they don’t get in a car with a drunk driver, to helping them get through whatever bad things happen to them. They should also know that Daddy isn’t going to shoot anyone unless they specifically ask him to, and he agrees it’s a good idea.
5) Patience. They will bring home all sorts of potential partners, I imagine. Some I’ll like more than others. But the only fair way to judge any of them is “how do they treat my child?” However much I might want one, I don’t get a veto on who my daughter finds attractive. While they are minors I do get to establish curfews, bounds, that sort of thing; where they go, when, and with whom. But if I’ve done my job even half right, they will tend to make decent choices in the end. And if they do come home having been hurt in some way, I hope I’ll have the discipline to do what they need me to do to make them feel better, not what I would want to do to make myself feel better.
The best “meeting the boyfriend” scenario I’ve ever heard though came from my friend Jherek Swanger. I met him in Seattle in 2004, along with his utterly adorable 3-year old daughter. She loved fencing, and would go and get her little mask and a sword and challenge people to fight her. Because all of her daddy’s friends were swordfighters. My own kids were some years away in the future, but I asked him what he was going to do when she started bringing boys home.
I’ve got it all worked out. I’ll be sitting on the porch sharpening a longsword with a stone. Schrrrripp! I’ll look at him and say: “So, you want to take my daughter out, huh?” Schrrrripp!
“Um… yes sir”
“You’re not planning on doing anything with her, are you?” Schrrrripp!
“Um, no sir. Really. I’ll just take her to the movies and bring her right back”
“Really? You don’t want to do anything else?” Schrrrripp!
“No! No, I wouldn’t even think about it”.
“Really? What are you, a eunuch?”