On being believed

October 13, 2014

This post is pretty over due. Hell, I’ve got lots of posts in my head which are overdue being written. But I promised myself to get this one out. It’s been out there as a Facebook post for a while and I just wanted to document the event here on the blog as well. Now that I’ve built that up ridiculously, here goes.

Some weeks ago we were on a road trip and in a city in Aotearoa New Zealand that we are not often in. There were six of us. My mother (Grandma), my cousin, my partner and our two kids.

For those who don’t know, we have two daughters. They are 8 and soon-to-be 7. Wide-eyed, confident and adventurous creatures.

Out for dinner one night, we were in a restaurant that was busy and full of people. The kind of room that is big and full of tables with servers bustling to and fro. We settled in with a full order of food and some wine on the way (for the adults, not the kids).

Proudly, the 8 year old felt able to go the bathroom by herself. We could see the door from where we were so we knew she couldn’t get lost. Off she trotted, returning a few minutes later, slipping silently back to her chair. And dinner continued.

A few minutes later she announced that there had been a man in the bathroom. ‘What do you mean?’ we asked mildly (but my heart started pounding). ‘When I came out of the stalls,’ she said, ‘a man was in there’. We asked a few more questions, to try to ascertain if he had posed a threat in anyway. When she said that he seemed confused and didn’t do/say anything, we praised her for telling us and then, almost brushed it off. In fact, if I’m honest, there was a strong urge to do just that, to minimise. ‘He probably just made a mistake’, I heard us saying.

And maybe that would have been fine. Maybe brushing it off after hearing the story would have been ok and we would have not paid it any further thought. She seemed ok.

But I think what happened next was better. At first she was ok, but then she wasn’t. She said she felt ‘uncomfortable’ and we could tell she was unnerved. We asked her what she wanted us to do and if she could remember what the man looked like and she described him to us. We agreed that I would speak with the manager.

I approached the manager not sure what to expect. I knew it was important to tell him what had happened. Not because I expected him to do anything to be honest, but because I wanted our daughters to see that we believed her and that we would take action. I approached him almost tentatively and I told him what happened, that she felt uncomfortable and, almost apologetically, that it’s important the girls see that they can tell and that they’ll be believed. I had a horrible feeling he was going to brush us off or dismiss us completely. This is what I expected, but he did the opposite.

He immediately sent a female employee into the women’s bathroom to check it out and then he approached our table and gently asked us if our daughter would be able to describe the man, which she did. He thanked her directly and later came back with a gift for her and her sister and thanked her again for saying something.

He really seemed to get it. He got that it’s important to listen, to believe and to take action. He got that even a little short scrawny kid’s feelings of discomfort matter. He spoke to her directly and kindly and seriously. He reassured her that she had done a brave thing by speaking up.

I got a little emotional if I’m honest. I often feel brutally aware of how vulnerable children are and as a parent, I am sure I’m not alone when I feel like I sometimes see dangers in the shadow, even though my rational mind knows that most people and places are good and safe. But I’m no fool too. I know the stats. And while this may have been a small incident in concrete terms, this event was hugely symbolic and instructive.

Kids, especially girls, get many messages as they grow up that their experiences and feelings are not as important as those of adults. This undermines their confidence and their ability to speak up for themselves and their needs, to give voice to their concerns and fears. And while my parenting is far from perfect, I think the way we handled this situation was pretty spot on. Our hope, is that by us and the manager, listening and believing and taking action, she and her sister have learned that if something feels wrong, they should trust their gut, that if they speak up, they’ll be believed. In short, that they, their privacy and their feelings matter.

She continued to feel unnerved and wanted to sleep with us that night instead of her own room. We supported her need for security and now the incident seems to be forgotten.

While it wasn’t nice that our daughter felt uncomfortable, we couldn’t have been happier with the way the restaurant manger reacted.

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