Not that kind of role model

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Lena Dunham’s questionable childhood shines a light on dark area of parenting

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. November 11, 2014

The awkward years of adolescence—we’ve all been there. For many of us it’s an aspect of our life we don’t revisit often. We tend to bottle up our past, repress memories, and avoid conversations where we open up about those “innocent” isolated incidents. We do this because as an adult it’s hard to say that those behaviours were in fact innocent. The fine line between curious sexual discovery and negligent abuse is a problem that recently surfaced in social media discourse.

I’m of course drawing connection to the events described in Lena Dunham’s memoir Not That Kind of Girl where she confessed to bribing her sister Grace with candy for kisses, in addition to having her sister expose herself. In one incident, Lena was a seven-year-old; Grace was one-year-old. Lena jokingly described herself as a sexual predator, and that statement ultimately caused a backlash. Judgment rained down from Twitter, and the Dunham sisters’ parents took the brunt of it.

Although Lena’s behaviour may seem repulsive to some, the Dunham sisters stood by each other, instead turning their story of incestuous behaviour to awareness for parents.

Policing young children’s sexually driven activities is not a simple task, and for many parents, they bypass the optional birds-and-the-bees lecture all together. Without guidance, children may find themselves in situations that might leave permanent scars. One could argue that the Dunham sisters have turned out fine, but because it’s such a taboo subject, there are probably countless cases out in the world that go unspoken, and many more occurrences go unseen.

A child’s actions will always be a reflection of the parents. The relationship between siblings, especially those with a significant age-gap like Lena and Grace, has been shown to be one where the older child has dominance over the younger. This case requires the parents to be in constant conversation with their children. Parents need to educate the elder and assess the younger. They need to encourage curiosity, yet set strict boundaries. Still, another element causes unease: how young should children be educated about sex?

Once children start interacting with other kids in a physical manner, be it violent or sexual, then a conversation needs to take place. Few parents will have the resources to supervise a child for long periods of time, and a lack of trust can become detrimental for both parents and children. When children are forced to interact, parents must explain what is appropriate and what is not. It doesn’t matter if it’s a sibling or if it’s a schoolmate, violating personal space through coercive or manipulative means is never appropriate.

It’s incredibly bold of the Dunham sisters to be open about such a sensitive experience in their personal lives. It was a shame to see so many people approach them and their parents with scorn. Who of us can say that we didn’t perform a questionable act in our youth, regrettable or not? And can a parent out in the world really say that they know exactly what to do in such a situation? There is no clear procedure to parenting; it’s trial and error. But with so many educational resources out in the world, there is no reason for any aspect to be brushed off.

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