Questions and Frettings about College Financial Aid

We have been touring some colleges with Rob; we’ve been bringing William along, which is one of the advantages of being born second to parents who tend to procrastinate about new things.

So far, Paul has done two of the tours and I have done one. So far, Paul is better at this than I am: he doesn’t panic about driving to new places, he doesn’t panic about what the parking situation will be, he doesn’t panic about maybe being late. But I did okay the one time I did it. Oh, what did ROB think? I have no idea. So far Rob has been driving me crazy by being shruggy about everything. One of the most famous colleges of all time and you would be lottery-winner-style lucky to get to go here? It’s okay, he guesses.

I am also thrown by this because in many ways Rob and I have similar temperaments, but on this topic we are OPPOSITES. By 8th grade I had chosen my college. It was a MISTAKE, I now believe, and I wish I hadn’t been under the impression at the time that all secular colleges were roiling pits of drugs and sex and alcohol and partying—but I was INVOLVED and INTERESTED, is I guess what I’m trying to communicate. I did college-search programs. I looked up the results in a book. I compared the merits of one to the merits of another. I made sure each one was the PROTESTANT kind of Christian and not, say, Catholic. …Okay, in retrospect there were some downsides to my searching methods, and perhaps being a little shruggy is not the worst thing someone can do for their educational prospects.

Anyway, I have some financial questions. We toured one college that said that tuition was free if the family made less than $XX,000 per year. Let’s say the family makes about $3,000/year more than that, and it’s because one of the parents recently acquired a part-time job. Should that parent quit her job? Or does the college then say, “Yesssssss, you do make under that amount, but one of you could be working so…”? Or is it like, it’s free if you make less than $XX,000, but it’s not generally a firm cut-off, and making $3,000/year more doesn’t mean they expect you to pay $56,000/year more in tuition, but instead would expect you to pay $3,000/year more in tuition? I know you’re not going to know the specifics of the specific college, especially if I am not telling you the specific college, but this is okay because I’m not actually asking about only this college and am wondering more about IN GENERAL what people have found about college financing situations such as this one.

Secondly, this same college said the free-tuition dealio was for families with “average assets.” This made me start thinking about our assets. I think we have more assets than some people: we are aware we have five children, and so we have been socking away for college. Also, I had a small amount of money of my own, and I invested it in Apple when Apple was $20/share. But…we’d like to divide those assets among the five children, not send the first one to college with almost no loans and have nothing left for the other four. Does a college understand that? Or are my fears correct that they expect you to drain the accounts before they’ll consider anything financial-aid-related? I mean, that would kind of be fair: what if none of our other kids even WENT to college? But it seems like poor planning.

Also, I would like to vent some general crabbiness. We are living in a small house, which we bought taking into account just one income. The kitchen is from 1960, and it wasn’t a good design then either; we have duct-taped some modifications into place, including using an old changing table as a countertop. We don’t have a garage. We have furniture with stuffing coming out of it. We only just replaced the mattresses the two older kids were sleeping on, which were my brother’s when he was a child. Each year we sent our tax refunds off to the mortgage. We don’t go on expensive vacations. We are doing all these things because we want to be better able to afford things like braces and college. I am feeling crabby because although I could be completely wrong about this, it seems to me that if we’d bought more house than we could afford, and had the kitchen remodeled, and added a garage, and bought new furniture every time the old stuff got shabby, and spent our tax refunds on vacations and a hot tub, and went out to dinner every week, we would qualify for a lot more financial aid. I’m feeling as if we’re going to get punished for all these years of me pining for my friends’ houses/kitchens/garages/meals/vacations, while they qualify for all the need-based scholarships.

I don’t see how it can be any other way (do I really want colleges to demand itemized spending records and a household inventory?), and I don’t want to live a way I consider unwise for our circumstances just to get need-based scholarships for the kids, but I am feeling theoretically cranky about the theoretical possibility of it. I guess I like to picture us as the cut-off: that any financial aid we don’t get would go to the people under us, who can’t afford the mortgage on a small house with a shabby kitchen, who have to spend their tax refund on their car insurance and medical expenses, etc. And not to the people I consider above us, with their island vacations and beautiful large houses and dinners out. It feels wrong to even think this way, because in theory I am an “everyone spends their own money in their own way” person—but when I picture the theoretical outcome in this case (someone else gets the vacation, the large house, the dinners out AND the financial aid, while we have none of those things AND no financial aid), I get theoretically upset.

Gift Ideas for an 11-Year-Old Boy

I did Elizabeth’s gift post, so now it’s time for Edward’s. Edward wanted mostly things from the category of “A Teenaged Boy on YouTube Said It Was Awesome.” We started with a Kaos Tie-Not water-balloon pump:

(image from Amazon.com)

(image from Amazon.com)

The big selling point is that it helps you tie the balloons so you do not have to ask your poor mother to keep doing it. Because he had gone back and forth between the portability of the pump system and the no-refilling-needed of the hose system, I also got him the hose-attached version, so he could compare. Plus a 500-balloon refill pack. (The balloons claim to be biodegradable, but I don’t know what kind of timeline they mean. Like…in a “just go ahead and leave those scraps in the grass” kind of way? Or more like in a “if the world’s history is a clock, mankind has only been here for 2 minutes of the last 12 hours” kind of way?)

 

Next cool item from a YouTube video: water beads.

(image from Amazon.com)

(image from Amazon.com)

These are pretty cool, but it’s funny to me that they’re also vase fillers. Teenaged boys and vase fillers do not seem like a natural pairing. Anyway, you put a SMALL NUMBER of these tiny hard plastic beads into a large bowl of water (or a vase), and they expand considerably and become all soft and squooshy. You can theoretically then let them dry out and watch them shrink back to tiny beads.

 

Next, a video game teenaged boys recorded themselves playing, and then posted those recordings on YouTube where my children for some reason enjoy watching them:

(image from Amazon.com)

(image from Amazon.com)

New Super Mario Bros for the Wii.

 

I do not understand Pokemon; when a child wants something Pokemon, I write down EXACTLY what they tell me and then I see if the price is a price I am willing to pay. Edward wanted something called an ies Aurorus-EX Box Pokemon Card Game:

(image from Amazon.com)

(image from Amazon.com)

 

I bought this impulsively when it was on sale at Target:

(image from Amazon.com)

(image from Amazon.com)

ThinkFun Code Master game. ThinkFun is a brand I trust; the box design is supposed to bring Minecraft to mind and Edward loves Minecraft; and it’s about programming/logic and Edward likes programming/logic.

 

The Lincoln Penny Portrait kit was one of the things he wanted most, and my parents got it for him:

(image from Amazon.com)

(image from Amazon.com)

They also gave him the eighteen rolls of pennies he would need to complete the poster. I bought even more rolls to have on hand in case the rolls don’t have the right proportions of dark/shiny pennies in them.

 

He also wanted Trapdoor Checkers, but the price was too high at the time I was shopping, so I’m saving the idea for later:

(image from Amazon.com)

(image from Amazon.com)

 

And also I found this game that is like a combination of his interest in checkers and his interest in coins:

(image from Amazon.com)

(image from Amazon.com)

American Coin Treasures Lincoln Coin Checkers set. But $30 seemed too high for a gift that was a total guess, so I put it in my Amazon cart so I’d remember to ask him about it near Christmas time.

Fabric with Potential; Prizes for Everyone; Disorienting

This item makes me wish I were more of a think-outside-the-box person:

napkinthing

It is a piece of hemmed cotton fabric, with a button on one end and a buttonhole on the other. A non-zero amount of work went into this item, considering it was only used to wrap around a pile of four napkins I bought on clearance for $2.98 at Target. It seems as if it could be USED for something, rather than tossed in the trash after I harvest the button.

Elizabeth tried to use it as a cat collar, with comic results.

Speaking of Elizabeth, she went to a day camp this past week and had a great time. On the last day, there was a performance/show/demonstration-type thing for parents, and the camp director got a cool high school girl to be the judge of the competitive part. Elizabeth was PISSED that at the end of the judging, everyone got the same ribbon, with the judge declaring herself unable to pick among so many wonderful competitors.

I was explaining to Pissed Elizabeth on the way home that although I too dislike the “Everyone’s a winner!” kind of thing, in this case it would have been tough to do otherwise: some kids were in their sixth year at this camp, while others were in their first; some kids were going into 8th grade and others into 2nd; etc. We talked about it for awhile, Elizabeth mostly seeing it from the campers’ point of view and me mostly seeing it from the camp director’s point of view. We agreed on the idea of doing a variety of prizes that let everyone get a ribbon (which appeared to be the goal) while still letting kids feel as if the prizes were real. Things like “Best costume,” “Most poised,” “Funniest.” You wouldn’t even need to come up with the categories ahead of time: the judge could think about each child’s performance and pick what was the best part of it and make the ribbon for that. This would be hard with a really big group, but in this case there were only six kids.

This week it’s Edward and Henry’s turn for day camp. Normally this camp is hosted by our town’s elementary school, but this year our school couldn’t do it, so we had to join with the next town over. At drop-off, I was reminded how much I dislike new/unfamiliar things. At our elementary school, I know exactly how to get there, exactly where to park, exactly where else to park if the usual parking is full, and exactly which entrances are possibilities. I know my way around the inside of the school, and I recognize/know the teachers, and I recognize a lot of the teenaged counselors. But this morning, I had to wing it. It went fine, of course it went fine, but I was surprised at just how disorienting it is.

Book: The Rook

I was describing this book to Paul and Rob, and the three of us together came up with this: that it’s like The Bourne Identity (in which someone wakes up and has to figure out who he/she is, and also why he/she seems to be well-equipped with cash and skillz) + Men in Black (in which someone is recruited into a secret government organization that fights the weird/supernatural/alien) + X-Men (in which there is a world where certain people are born with interesting abilities). I felt so pleased with us for summing it up so clearly and evocatively. Then I was looking at reviews, and basically everyone was saying the same thing. So. Well, it means there’s CONSENSUS.

(image from Amazon.com)

(image from Amazon.com)

The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley.

I found the book extremely enjoyable, and kept wanting to go back to it. The writing was a little rough in places, and I have never liked the exposition-via-letters gimmick (NO ONE would EVER go into SO MUCH DETAIL in a letter, NO MATTER WHAT the situation was); but the former felt like first-book issues, and the latter was easy enough to go along with in this case where it seemed justified.

I love it when a character is put into a situation that would be hugely tense and upsetting for almost anyone—but then turns out to be able to handle it.

Update on the Baby-Wanting Situation

Last night I dreamed I was pregnant. SUPER vivid dream, including running my hand over my rounded tum and thinking about names. (I was thinking, “Funny how I think I am just DYING to choose a name, until I actually have to choose one.”) Seven or eight years ago, I would have woken up and cried that it wasn’t real, and maybe spent the day brooding and eating fudge. Today I woke up IMMENSELY RELIEVED that it was a dream. I mention this in case you are where I was seven or eight years ago, feeling as if you will never be able to live a happy life unless you have another baby, and wondering if that feeling will ever go away. I can offer only one anecdotal “yes, it will” data point, but here it is if it helps.

It is partly made up of sensible things: I am now older than I would like to be for a pregnancy, and the gap between my youngest and another baby would be MUCH larger than I’d like it to be, and at this point I don’t want to start again at the beginning. It is also partly because the other children have gotten older, and I’ve thought, “Ohhhhhhhhhh, wait: I wanted a lot of BABIES, but I do not necessarily want a lot of three-year-olds or a lot of fourteen-year-olds.”

But I think it is mostly that The Feeling went away. I think it is a mistake to underestimate the role biology plays in a passionate desire for children: some of it is because children are neat to have, but a lot of it is a species-benefiting biological set-up that isn’t necessarily in the individual’s best interests. I remember when I was crying about the situation to my OB/GYN (he asked during a check-up if we were planning more children, and I burst into tears), and I asked if the baby cravings ever went away, and he said, “I don’t know. I can only tell you this: that older women no longer talk to me about it.” That’s not entirely comforting: my guess is that older women stop talking about it because it’s an option that’s no longer available. But now that I am a bit older myself, I am revising that guess to include the idea that when the option is no longer available, for most of us it also stops being so appealing. Biology stands down and lets most of us stop pining.

Still, I do think we should have had a sixth child, back when Paul said no. At this point that child would be six or seven, and I think that would have been great. And also, I do think that Paul saying no to another child, when I wanted one so badly I felt I could not live a happy life without one, had a lasting, non-positive effect on our marriage. I’m not saying he could have said anything else, if he really felt that strongly about it; and maybe if he had given in to what I wanted, perhaps it would have had some detrimental effect in the other direction; and perhaps there was NO possible happy outcome from that deadlocked situation and there would have been a negative effect no matter what we’d decided. But regardless, I don’t think back to that time and think it went the way it should have, or that he was right. He has never been good at thinking ahead to the future, so I don’t feel he made a decision based on a good evaluation of the situation; and he made me feel that when it comes down to truly important decisions in our shared life, it’s his happiness over mine.

Gift Ideas for an 11-Year-Old Girl

The twins had their 11th birthdays recently, so I am going to do twin posts on their gifts. I’ll start with Elizabeth’s.

Probably her top favorite gift was from my parents: a snail aquarium set-up, which she’d wanted ever since she brought home a snail in a 2-liter-bottle-based terrarium from school:

(image from Amazon.com)

(image from Amazon.com)

The sharp-eyed among you will be observing that this is not a snail aquarium but is in fact a betta fish aquarium. This is what the Surprisingly Knowledgeable About Snails clerk at the pet store recommended to me when I did preliminary research on this idea, since there is not really any such thing as a snail aquarium, since there is an almost imperceptible demand for snails as pets. My parents also included a certificate saying she could choose a bag of aquarium pebbles, some decorative thingies, and two more snail friends for her snail.

 

Her second favorite gift was probably this pink bunny suit for her cat:

(image from Amazon.com)

(image from Amazon.com)

The cat is about 11 pounds so I ordered a large, but I think extra-large would have been even better. One funny thing is that after initially resisting (i.e., refusing to move, so that he looked and felt even more like a living stuffed animal), the cat turned out to LIKE the suit. He seems to find it comforting.

Edited to add: OKAY FINE, here are pictures of her cat in the suit!

Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 7.16.08 AM
I realize he does not seem to be Radiating Joy in this photo, but cats almost always look crabby in photos, and this particular cat doesn’t really want anyone except Elizabeth to come within 10 feet.

Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 7.17.07 AM
Here he is having dinner in his bunny suit.

 

Elizabeth is crazy about Digibirds right now, and they are cute but annoying: they sing together, and they tilt their heads back and forth adorably, and they make sweet realistic chirping sounds—but they cue each other to sing by emitting an annoying series of electronic tones. Well, she loves them, so I bought her a set of two more birds and a cute perch:

(image from Amazon.com)

(image from Amazon.com)

 

At her school they have optional activities they can sign up for at recess: playing guitar, doing watercolors, doing crossword puzzles, playing basketball, having a book club, etc. She signed up for sopranino recorder and really liked it, so we got her one of her own:

(image from Amazon.com)

(image from Amazon.com)

It’s tiny and adorable: about as much smaller than the soprano recorder as the soprano is smaller than the alto.

Her last present is a little odd. Quite awhile ago, like last fall, I was looking on the West Elm website and we saw a WALRUS tray and a WALRUS pillow and she flipped for them. I ordered them both, and then neither of them arrived, and then eventually I saw a refund on my credit card for the pillow, and then the tray showed up, and then my credit card was re-charged for the pillow, and then a refund was again issued, and that happened FOUR TIMES until I finally contacted the company and they said “Oops, sorry, the pillow is no longer available and there was apparently a glitch”—and then literally MONTHS AND MONTHS LATER, like about SIX months later, the pillow showed up. It was bizarre. Meanwhile Christmas had come and gone and I hadn’t given her the tray because it suddenly seemed like a weird gift for a child, especially without its companion pillow.

ANYWAY. I gave her the tray AND the pillow for her birthday. Neither one is available any more, but here is a picture of the tray, and the pillow has the same picture on it:

(image from westelm.com)

(image from westelm.com)

I also bought a plate hanger (like this kind of thing) for the tray so she can hang it on her wall, since she is not yet at the age to serve canapes to friends.

 

Edited to add: It occurred to me that since this is a list of IDEAS rather than just a report of what a particular girl got for her particular birthday, I can extend this post to include things we considered getting her.

One thing she really wanted was a fancy manicure. She’s been watching videos on YouTube about nail art. But…she is 11, and her nail polish still gets chipped after five minutes. And I had no idea how much such a thing would cost, but “a lot more than she thinks it will” seemed likely, so we didn’t go with this.

We were planning instead to buy her a bunch of nail stuff: nail stencils, nail stickers, nail sponges, the nail goop that gets painted around the nail so that mistakes peel right off—but you’ll notice I’m not even linking to examples, because I got overwhelmed by options and couldn’t figure out what was right. I’d find a stencil set that looked pretty okay—and it would be A DOLLAR PER NAIL to use the stupid things. And all the stencils and stickers looked like they were for long grown-woman nails, not tiny little girl nails. Plus, about a week before her birthday, against parental advice (because it is a poor idea to buy things for oneself so close to one’s birthday), Elizabeth used her own money to buy a $5 Lisa Frank kit that seemed way more perfect than anything I’d been looking at:

(image from Amazon.com)

(image from Amazon.com)

It has child-sized stickers, and a dotting tool that has proved hugely successful.

 

Another thing she wanted was a wooden xylophone. She has a metal one (this one—it’s more than a toy, but less than a million dollars) and uses it a lot. But I looked into it, and they were all either too expensive or they were basically toys. This is the only one that was a possibility:

(image from Amazon.com)

(image from Amazon.com)

But it was nearly a hundred dollars (and, annoyingly, about $80 when I first looked at it and up to nearly $100 the very next day), so it would not fit in the gift budget unless I did one of the things I sometimes do, where for example I only charge the gift budget $13 for an $18 t-shirt since the child’s wardrobe is increasing by a t-shirt I would have bought for $5. Or, I mean, once Rob asked for an ALGEBRA WORKBOOK for his birthday, and that is the sort of thing I would ABSOLUTELY just buy for a child, so I didn’t count it toward his birthday budget at all.

I called in my musical brother to assist, and he evaluated the situation more thoroughly than I was willing to, and concluded that the trouble with wooden xylophones is that they were either inexpensive toys or HUGELY EXPENSIVE GLOCKENSPIELS. I decided that since Elizabeth is going to middle school next year, she can try out the school’s H.E.G. and see what she thinks.

 

Lastly, we considered glow-in-the-dark stars:

(image from Amazon.com)

(image from Amazon.com)

We have a place in town where people can drop off stuff they don’t want and other people can take anything they want for free, and she’d recently obtained from there a small pack of glow-in-the-dark stars. She really, really liked them and wanted more—but I felt they were most likely a passing interest, and also she already had some, and also I am already dreading what they’ll do to the walls/ceiling when we peel them off.

Incessant Interruptions

I cannot figure out how to balance the children’s need to continually talk to me with my need to not have children continually talking to me. We are on Year 18 of this struggle, with no resolution in sight.

Older women tell me that the solution is to wait until the children are gone and then to wish fervently that I had not wished this precious time away. This does not seem like a satisfying solution. Furthermore, it indicates to me that there will be a mental transformation of some sort, a transformation that will render me unable to remember with any level of accuracy what this time of my life was like. That is discouraging. Already I have seen the early signs of it: I look with damp-eyed nostalgia at women shopping at Target with babies and toddlers, thinking fondly of how when I was in their shoes I would keep shoving goldfish crackers into little mouths to keep them from continually talking to me.

Well. Nothing brings this issue to light quite like summer vacation. Soon the children and I will gather to have our annual discussion about summer goals/plans, and I hope to find a way to say to them that every word from their lips is like precious gems to me, but could we stop the practice of dispersing those gems in every-90-seconds increments, a practice that makes it so that the only way I could survive the incessant interruptions with my mind intact would be to sit, motionless and receptive, doing nothing else but waiting for the next child to talk to me?

Furthermore, the other day I did an experiment that was even more disheartening. It was morning, and I’d had an idea for a post, so I was working on that while the children were getting ready for school. They were interrupting me SO INCESSANTLY that a literal LINE had formed. So I thought, like the sensible, patient, reasonable mother I long to be: “This is clearly not a good time to try to write. I can write later. I don’t need to SET UP a situation where I will be driven crazy.” I stopped writing, I went into the kitchen to be available to the children—and no one talked to me. I waited 10 minutes, doing various little tasks, and not one single child talked to me.

So I thought it was probably like the lines in Target, where first no one is in line and then suddenly a dozen customers all appear at once. I had just hit a little flood of children-wanting-to-talk-to-me, but now it was over. I returned to my computer, started writing, and I am not exaggerating even one tiny morsel when I say that within 30 seconds a child was talking to me. And then another child. And then a third child.

So I thought, okay, the LULL was the anomaly. I went to the living room, and I sat in a chair doing nothing. That is, I just Made Myself Available. AND NO ONE TALKED TO ME. I waited another full ten minutes. NO ONE TALKED TO ME.

I returned to my computer. The children appeared and started talking to me.

It was like a JOKE. It was like a SITCOM. It was like a FAMILY CIRCUS comic. It was as if there were a sensor in my computer chair that set off little activation switches in the children’s brains. It was one of the most depressing experiments I have ever performed.

Comics Recommendations

Hi Swistle, could you do a post about what comics you read? I started reading Dumbing of Age because you mentioned it in a post once and I really love it. And I think it was you that mentioned Bad Machinery too, and I love that too. I’m going through a bit of a reading slump where I’m struggling to find a book that I feel like reading more than a couple pages of, but I realized I still enjoy comics, especially the sort that tell an on-going story. So I was hoping you might have some more recommendations.

Thanks

Nancy

 

This is a great idea: I want suggestions TOO.

Here are the comics I currently read, of the sort that tell an on-going story (those are my favorite kind, too):

Dumbing of Age

Bad Machinery / Scary Go Round – This one seems to do several different sometimes-overlapping comics, in batches. I’ve never figured out what the pattern is, or which series is named what: I just go with it.

Questionable Content

Alice Grove

 

And here are the comics I currently read, of the sort that don’t tell an on-going story per se:

Dinosaur Comics

Hark, A Vagrant!

Robot Hugs

xkcd

 

Nancy and I would like to know what comics YOU read—particularly the kind that have a long-running storyline, but also the kind that don’t.

What Someone Else Would Want

This morning I am thinking about two things that are more like one thing, or at least two things with significant overlap.

The first thing is when someone wants something very reasonable, something it would not be weird to expect to be able to have, but can’t have it. Like when someone really wants to get married and have children: no one would say to a child with that goal, as we might if the child’s goal to be a world-famous actor and then President of the United States afterward, “Oh, well honey, that’s a GREAT plan, but it’s a good idea to have a BACK-UP plan, just in case.” Marriage/children is a normal thing to want, and a normal thing to get, and yet there are lots of great people who want those things and can’t get them.

The second thing is when someone has something very desirable, something a LOT of people want but can’t have, and doesn’t want it. Like how I am married to a man who likes to cuddle at night, but I can’t sleep with someone touching me. I think of that episode of Friends where the guys are discussing ways to get out of a cuddle, because all their girls want to cuddle. Meanwhile there’s me, using those tips in vain. It feels so wasteful, and also so hard to complain about. Like saying “Ug, I just HATE having all this MONEY.” Or when the hairdresser is using the thinning scissors on my hair, and the elderly ladies getting perms to make their thin hair look thicker are squinting at me with envy and resentment. I’M SORRY I DON’T WANT WHAT YOU WOULD KILL FOR.

It’s on my mind right now because I want something that seems reasonable to me, something that does not seem weird to expect to have if I want it, which is to live near my parents. Furthermore, that seems like something a lot of parents WANT: they complain that their children live so far away, and nag them to live closer. My parents were in that group: my mom was very persistent about trying to get us to live near them. And then they got what they wanted, what LOTS of people want, and ALL their children moved close to home: my brother moved from across the country to live an hour away, and I moved from across the country to live .3 miles away. I wanted to live where I was already living, and I really didn’t want to move to the location where my parents lived, but my parents wouldn’t move to where we were, so I made that trade.

And now my parents have moved almost as far away as they can get and still remain in the same country. They still live here for part of the year, but that’s only because we’re here: they would like to move permanently to the new location. I could theoretically still have part of what I want: if my primary geographical goal is to live near family, which it was when I could still move freely, I could dig out all our roots, sell our customized house, take all the kids out of their schools, take us away from all our friends and hard-won social groups, leave my brother and sister-in-law and niece and nephew and sister-in-law’s siblings, and follow my parents. I could keep doing that every time they moved. Or, my parents could move back here, choosing live-near-family preferences over geographical ones. This is like saying that someone who really wants marriage and kids could have an arranged marriage, or that someone who doesn’t like cuddling could accept being cuddled because that’s what someone else would want.

Talking to a Fifth-Grade Girl about Rape

I have taken to heart the thing about how instead of teaching our daughters to escape being raped, we should be teaching our sons not to be rapists. You’d think a big national rape case would provide excellent material for talking to our sons about not being rapists. But no, unfortunately yet again what we have is excellent material for talking to our daughters about how to escape being raped.

It’s especially frustrating because I just recently read somewhere that it feeds into rape culture to say “This is something that happens to women in our culture.” This makes it harder for me to tell my daughter what I want to tell her, which is the actual truth: this IS something that happens to women in our culture.

Furthermore, “in our culture” is only accurate if we mean “in our timeless worldwide human culture,” because this is an ancient worldwide problem and not a local or recent one. We are in fact fairly lucky if we live in a time period and part of the world where at least theoretically rape is against the law, and where a victim of rape is not put to death for the crime of being raped, or forced to marry her rapist. So lucky!

The basic timeless worldwide problem we are dealing with is that a certain percentage of humans, almost exclusively male humans, are rapists who don’t see anything wrong with raping, and don’t seem to learn otherwise no matter what we do. And that another certain percentage of humans, some overlapping the first group but many not overlapping, will defend those rapists and instead attack the women who have been raped.

And so two terrible things happen to a woman who is raped: (1) she is raped, and (2) she is blamed for it. (Well, at LEAST two terrible things. Other options include not being believed at all, having to deal with a pregnancy resulting from the rape, having to deal with an STD resulting from the rape, having to deal with the extensive and multi-layered psychological fall-out of being raped, etc.)

There is a big element here of that thing people do when they are scared and want to feel safe: if we can find something that the victim did, and if that thing is something we ourselves can avoid, then we have made a magical protection spell around ourselves. There have been plenty of articles written about how women have to live their lives constantly worrying about being attacked/raped by men, so I won’t go over that again here. But if you are living in that kind of constant fear, it is natural for certain superstitions to arise: if I don’t walk alone in the dark, if I walk confidently, if I stay in a good part of town, if I wear the right kind of clothing, if I don’t step on a crack, if there are an even number of steps between here and where I live, if I don’t let my foot dangle over the edge of the bed—if I do all these things right, I don’t have to be so scared because the bad thing won’t happen to me.

It’s too bad a self-soothing mechanism can so easily lead to saying “SEE?? You forgot one of the rules and THAT’S why you got raped! It’s YOUR fault! WHEW: that gives me some relief for my distress.” It’s an understandable panic/fear reaction, but education helps: as with the problem of the bystander effect, the solution is to know it exists. As soon as you know it’s a Thing, you’re much less likely to be tricked by it.

Well. What I needed was a version of all this that was geared for a 5th-grade girl. Sometimes getting started is the hardest part. What I started with was saying to her that there was a news story right now that was making me even more worried about her and her friends. Then I went slowly: we had about a 35-minute car ride, so even though the next few paragraphs may look as if I sat there ranting and lecturing and talking too fast, it was pretty casual, with lots of responses from her.

I told her that a man had raped an unconscious woman, and that he still didn’t seem to think he’d done anything wrong except drink too much, and that the judge had decided he shouldn’t be punished too much because that would have a negative effect on his future, and that a lot of people were saying it was the woman’s fault for being unconscious. I reminded her of the statistic that approximately 1 out of 6 women will be sexually assaulted, and that it’s likely that number is wayyyyyyy too low because of how many assaults go unreported, and that the majority of sexual assaults are done by a man the woman knows (which contributes to under-reporting and feelings of self-blame). I hope I adequately covered how very Not Your Fault a sexual assault is (even if you liked the guy, even if you were flirting, even if you were drinking, even if you were wearing sexy clothes, even if you participated willingly with other physical things, even if he’s your boyfriend, and so on), but we will return to that subject again and again over the years.

I told her that it was sickening and crappy that she would need to be taught how to decrease her odds of being raped, but that here we were. I mentioned the thing about teaching your sons not to be rapists, but that this situation in the news was not helpful, and she agreed. We talked about using the buddy system, and not letting your drink go unattended, and keeping an eye out for other women—strangers as well as friends. I told her about that other story that’s been in the news, about the women who were eating in a restaurant and saw a man put something in another woman’s drink, and they told the woman and also the waiter and also the police. This is the kind of thing we can do to help each other. Or if you see a girl at a party, and she seems drunk and you see guys circling her as if she is prey, you can help her back to her dorm/apartment or into a taxi or WHATEVER. If she won’t leave, you can go stand next to her. You can get some of your good guy friends involved. You can call campus security to help you. We also touched upon the topic of rape kits.

That was around the time the car ride ended, so I’ve left it there for now.