08/27/2006 04:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Teach Our Children Well

I'm not over-the-hill, but I've lived long enough to be able to place multiple labels next to my name - including PhD, wife, and parent. I'm also a rape survivor, and this label, and the personal trauma that lies behind it, has helped to inform my parenting style over the years.

I'm the mother of three daughters and one son, ranging in age from 15 to 34. My son, nearly 18, is going off to university this fall. It's at times like these - the launch into young adult life, that I experience some of my most potent fears, and relive my most frightening memories.

Like most parents, I worry about my children's safety. I warn my daughters about the risks that exist for them, and I warn my son too, because predators, pitfalls, and dangers abound for all children, male and female. Having experienced the violence of rape firsthand, along with the stigma and stereotype that can be attached to this crime, I have some strong opinions about how boys and girls and men and women should behave around each other. Perhaps, due to my own harrowing experience, I've made a point to pay close attention to how my son perceives, relates to, and treats women.

Growing up around so many females, my son has been exposed to the pendulum swings of hormones and cheeky sibling rivalry all his life. He has had to stand up for himself, and learn to stand down his temper regarding female issues and behaviors that he didn't understand. And though, when he was little, he tried using brute strength to get his way, he soon discovered that this type of response was forbidden in our house, and by extension, in society at large. He wasn't permitted to overpower his sisters to get his way, because if he did, there would be serious consequences for it. He learned that sometimes the best solution to a conflict was to walk away - to allow things to cool off before the situation got a chance to spin out of control.

Ultimately the most relevant lesson my son and his sisters learned, was to take responsibility for their own actions, and to respect boundaries - the operational words being responsibility and respect. We teach our kids not only by what we say, but more importantly, by what we do. When boys are taught respect and affection by witnessing such behavior in their homes, there's a good chance they'll carry those lessons with them in life. Our son grew up around the open affection, love, and respect that exist between my husband and me. He has watched three generations interact in a household where, despite sibling rivalry and other frustrations, women are not subjected to macho power-plays, and women's opinions have an equal voice. He has been taught about boundaries - not only for himself, but for women as well.

I hope this homegrown education will serve him well, for he, like thousands like him, is about to embark on one of the most treacherous journeys a young person can take - the first year of college. Group-speak, testosterone, booze and peer pressure can concoct a dangerous brew. Young men jockeying for power and pleasure may partake in age-old king-of-the-hill contests that prescribe their loyalty to one group or other, or prove their prowess as men. These same young men are in danger of making stupid, life-altering, even deadly decisions.

I was raped when I was 18 -- 37 years ago. But I can easily dredge up the fear, humiliation, pain and anguish of that horrible night. I also still feel slightly guilty about it -- as though I somehow brought it on myself - that I could have avoided it, had I not been where I was when it happened. Two points: I knew the person who raped me; and I was not sexually inexperienced at the time of the rape.

This incident is ancient history for me, but the passing of time, and the strong responsibility I feel as a mother, has turned my past experiences into pertinent teaching tools for the present. My memory-nightmares help me advise my kids about how to behave, and how to protect themselves from making dangerous, mindless choices. Hopefully, they'll see the importance of learning what is safe, what is appropriate, and then have the wisdom to stay away from legally, ethically, emotionally, and physically compromising situations.

The story of what happened at Duke University is still unclear -- but whatever the outcome, it's a sobering reminder of how much teaching has gone untaught, or perhaps, merely unlearned. Respect and personal responsibility are important concepts that must be taught from a very young age, to both girls and boys, so they'll use them when they are men and women.

Rape - forcing sex on an unwilling, or unconscious partner, is a sex crime. Sex crimes are violent crimes - they have nothing to do with passion, love, commitment, and consensual sex. Date-rape is still rape. Sex crimes are about rage - they are a frightening abuse of power and manipulation.
As our sons and daughters go off to college this fall, I hope they will be attaining their Bachelor degrees, Masters, and PhDs. And I hope they'll be armed with the tools they'll need to get there - like an internal editor that checks on their behavior before they do something they regret. Teaching our daughters and sons how to behave in society is of the utmost importance because "rapist" is not a label anyone would want beside their name.