Reflections on Empowering Parenting

Jenny Castro is a mother of three children, ages 12, 10 and seven. She is coordinator of the Women in Leadership Project and communications associate for Mennonite Church USA. She also serves on the Panel for Sexual Abuse Prevention for the denomination. Jenny is a member of San Antonio Mennonite Church. This post originally appeared at The Gathering Place.

When I look at my kids I see the best parts of me and my spouse. My kids give me joy and hope, they ground me in my daily reality with their needs and routines. Before I became a mother, I’d only brushed the surface of my deep capacity to love. I desire to teach them, empower them, guide them and equip them to be healthy and whole people. And as a mother, it is also my responsibility to protect them. Sexual abuse and assault are real, and have continued to happen to 25 percent of women in our country and up to 16 percent of men.

How do we protect those that we love? How do we protect our most vulnerable humans?

I don’t have all the answers. And sometimes the work of prevention can feel nebulous. We are never sure if we are doing enough. Are we asking the right questions? Have we thought through the possibilities? Who can we really trust? We all have these concerns — we want the best for our kids. We want to protect them. And we hope we’re not missing something.

In our family, there are a few things we’ve come to value, ways of being really, that we believe help in the development of healthy sexuality and lay the groundwork in the prevention of sexual abuse for our children.

Empowering our kids over their bodies.

One of many mantras in our home is, “You get to choose who touches your body and how.” We repeat this in the midst of heated arguments, in showing love to each other, in maintaining personal space and a variety of other circumstances. It always applies. In setting these boundaries, our kids are learning to say, “no.” They are practicing the power of using “no” or “stop” clearly and with conviction. And they are learning what it means to respect the boundaries of others. Our hope is that this cultivates self-confidence in and agency over their own bodies and the ability to more easily recognize unhealthy or inappropriate touch if or when it happens.

Talking about sex.

Sexuality is a part of being human and as such it is a natural reality that we encounter in the context of family. As parents, my spouse and I have chosen to answer our kids’ questions that arise about sex honestly and with transparency. Our bodies are not shameful and so we consistently call all our body parts by their names. We are not ashamed of our sex life around our children. Our bedroom door is rarely locked, but when it is, our kids understand and respect the fact that sometimes mom and dad take time to love each other in a special and private way. We teach them that sex is a natural part of a healthy relationship. And we create space for healthy, open conversation about sexuality, which is happening more and more as my kids are transitioning from childhood into adolescence. The easier it is for my kids to talk about and embrace their own sexuality, the easier it will be to recognize if or when something is wrong. If they are in a dangerous situation, they’ll be equipped with the knowledge, confidence and power to name it, escape it, and talk to us about it.

Raising strong, resilient girls.

The root of sexual abuse is patriarchy — a system that values women less than men — and it works by objectifying women, creating a sense they are less than human, objects to be consumed. I recognize that in our society, even in the year 2017, my girls have the cards stacked against them in terms of their value. My journey towards seeing myself created in the image of God and recognizing my power as a woman has been hard-fought. But together, my spouse and I are working to empower our girls from the start — teaching and modeling for them wholeness, confidence and self-assurance, because in the times we are living in, they’ll need tenacity to believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they are enough — to not be manipulated or enticed by any person or system that would devalue them. And in the same vein, we’re raising a young man who understands and respects the dignity and personhood of women, created in God’s image just like he is. This is our long-game, investing in our children. Through raising self-confident girls and an awakened young man, we are ever-so slowly changing the culture of our society, dismantling patriarchy and contributing to a shared understanding of the full equality and personhood of women within our culture.

Sexual abuse is real, our kids are precious gifts, and we’re all doing the best we can. Daily I pray for wisdom in mothering — ears to hear what my kids are really saying and insight to understand what I see. Parenting is not easy, but with intentionality and daily grace, we take it one step at a time.