“Mom, if a boy grabs my butt, is it okay if I slap him in the face?” my 13-year old daughter asked as we drove to her lesson.

“Um, what?” I replied hastily. “Did this happen to you?” Waves of panic started to wash over me as I tried to watch both the road and her face for telling signs.

“No, but I think it happened to some girls at school, and one of them said she would slap a boy across the face if he pinched her butt, so I wondered if that is what I should do if it ever happened to me.”

I sighed and looked at the sweet child sitting next to me. Like many girls her age, she is a young soul dressed up in a woman’s body. Her question is valid. The odds of a male touching her inappropriately in the next few years are quite high.

“Well, what do you think you should do?” I countered, trying to get a feel for what she thought about this issue.

“I’d want to punch him, but I wouldn’t want to get in trouble at school—or by you.”

And there it was: my people-pleasing daughter more concerned with following the rules than protecting herself.

I could relate. I’m a people pleaser. It’s something I am working to change, but old habits die hard, and this one is tough to break.

I don’t like to rock the boat or inconvenience people. I get embarrassed when someone points out that I didn’t follow the rules. I often ask permission to do things I know to be right. I hate confrontation.

Unfortunately, my daughter is the same way. She gets anxiety if she is running late for school. She panics if she forgets her gym clothes or her homework. She worries that she will be embarrassed in front of her classmates if her assignment isn’t correctly done. She follows the rules to a tee.

But the problem when we raise girls like this is when there are no rules to follow, we get stuck in the muck of inaction. We don’t yell for help because we think we are at fault. We accept someone’s behavior because it is easier for us to sweep under the rug then face talking about it. We would rather deal with internal shame then the public embarrassment.

I thought back to the times I didn’t say anything to the co-worker whose hands were just a little too low on my backside as we entered a boardroom. I remembered when a football player wouldn’t let me out of a corner in a club by keeping his hands firmly on my shoulders. I recalled when a client patted me on the butt after a presentation. 

I thought by not saying anything I was just going with the flow, but the thought of my daughter going through similar situations made my stomach turn.

For girls with a strong sense of self and empowerment, passivity in the face of an assault is a foreign concept. But for people pleasers, going against the grain is difficult and painful. I could feel my daughter’s inner turmoil in my bones because we shared this genetic predisposition.

So, I decided to provide my daughter with something tangible she could latch onto in moments where someone, male or female, physically intimidated or assaulted her. I gave her permission—permission to act, permission to protect herself, permission to be bold.

“If a male ever touches you inappropriately anywhere on your body, and you protect yourself, you will never be in trouble with me. I can’t guarantee what the school will do, but you will never get punished by your parents,” I told her.

“Really?” she asked.

“And even more than that, if you ever feel threatened by a male where you think you are in danger, you knee him in the balls and run. You yell. You scream for help at the top of your lungs. The only person who is wrong in that situation is the man who is inappropriate, the only one who should be embarrassed is him.”

My daughter laughed, but then noticed my serious expression.

“You have my permission—no, my insistence—that you protect yourself. My number one rule is that your safety comes first,” I said.

I glanced over at this beautiful creature and saw her eyes looking fierce, an expression I rarely see in this gentle soul.

“OK?” I asked.

“Yeah, OK,” she replied. “I feel a little more ready now. Just in case.”

And I exhaled deeply in relief.

I know my daughter is aware of the perils in this world. I try to prepare her for how to manage dangerous situations or how to avoid them altogether. But I also worry she is too polite, too complicit, too fearful of getting in trouble to ruffle feathers—even when it comes to protecting herself.

As parents, we can only try to understand our kids’ personalities and arm their young minds with the tools necessary to defend themselves if needed.

And sometimes that means giving permission to kick a guy in the balls.

Whitney Fleming

Whitney is a mom of three teen daughters, a communications consultant, and blogger. She tries to dispel the myth of being a typical suburban mom although she is often driving her minivan to soccer practices and attending PTA meetings. She writes about parenting, relationships, and w(h)ine on her blog Playdates on Fridays.