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My daughter is 5, in her second year of primary school. The parents of this class all share a WhatsApp group, which is used for practical things like reminders of school events, and occasional moral support when one of us has a bad day. It's always very casual and friendly and supportive. Today, the following messages occurred as part of a wider discussion about an after-school disco:

Parent 1: ... now he’s learnt to wolf whistle he keeps doing it at the girls 🤦‍♀️

Parent 2: 🤣🤣🙈

My daughter has not complained about anything like this happening. She is generally very happy at school and the school generally provides an excellent standard of care and safeguarding. I also don't believe that any of the 5 year old boys in the class would be wolf-whistling with any malign intention, and almost certainly they just find it silly and funny.

Nevertheless, as a father of two girls, I'm naturally protective, and abundantly aware of the wider conversation happening on how to prevent harassment and violence against women and girls. It is clear to me, from my own observations and from my own experience as a male, how attitudes develop from seeds of thoughts and behaviours at very early ages.

So should I take any action here and now?

I am wary of needing to strike a balance between not being the busybody parent, and not standing by doing nothing when a tactful intervention may steer the class in the right direction.

If I raise this, who to? The WhatsApp group? Parent 1? The school administration?

To be clear, I'm absolutely not looking to get the boy in question into trouble, and I am not suggesting there is any actual harassment happening here. This is solely about whether this is a teachable moment and whether there is value starting this type of discussion in relation to such young kids.

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    Maybe it's because I'm dutch, but what is a "wolf whistle"? Is that just imitating the wolf howl? I'm trying to understand the problem, but thusfar I'm missing it :)
    – Martijn
    Oct 20 at 12:20
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    @Martijn examples
    – CGCampbell
    Oct 20 at 15:16
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    @Martijn. A wolf whistle is a two-part "whoop woo", usually used for street harassment. I don't know why it's called a wolf whistle; it's nothing like a wolf howl.
    – TRiG
    Oct 20 at 15:17
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    Caveat: My kids are adults and neither has children of their own... are kids really starting Elementary school at 4 now?
    – CGCampbell
    Oct 20 at 15:18
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    @TRiG I am almost positive it's called a wolf whistle because of this loony tunes clip youtube.com/watch?v=iZ1UdYOrR3E
    – Ryan_L
    Oct 20 at 15:55
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I agree that 5 yo boys who wolf whistle are probably just proud to show off a skill they've imitated to the level of mastery. They would probably turn a shade of green if they understood all the implications a wolf whistle carries.

However, there is an appropriate way to whistle and an inappropriate one, and it's the parent's job, as well as the teacher's job as one in loco parentis, to teach that concept. The explanation need be no more complicated than, "That's not considered polite/respectful."

If my daughter were in that class, I would begin by speaking with the teacher to see what page they were on. If they agree, great! If they don't, and/or they do nothing, there isn't much you can do, especially if your daughter doesn't object. If the parent is a friend, you might bring it up with them in private. If not, probably best to just drop it. ("Pick your battles" applies to adults, too.)

But the parenting part of this is to help your own daughters to understand why wolf whistling is impolite at a level they can understand, and to help them frame/learn and practice their responses to this. Give them a voice and the knowledge that it's fine, and appropriate, to use it. They are fortunate in having a father who cares about them as deeply as you obviously do.

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    Do you have any idea how we can define the difference between a bad whistle and an acceptable one? I think that could be very useful for many adults too.
    – Orbit
    Oct 20 at 10:51
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    @Orbit - Whistling at a woman to indicate you find her sexually appealing is bad, unless it's your wife and she likes that. Whistling Vivaldi is good. Whistling to a man or woman to get their attention is bad unless you've made vocal attempts that have failed. Whistling anything close to Bobby McFerrin is good. Etc. If you still have questions, let me know. Oct 20 at 13:53
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Rory Alsop
    Oct 21 at 9:22
  • I've they've seen the cartoon linked above in the comments, they may pick up on te implications.
    – Barmar
    Oct 21 at 14:32
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    @anongoodnurse: Best explanation I've ever heard! ^_^ Oct 22 at 13:45
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With the facepalm emoji that came from parent 1, I think you should assume that the parent does not believe that it is okay for their son to be doing this. With that in mind, you may be able to come up with a way that encourages the conversation to move in a good direction but doesn't blame the parent. If it were me, I would say something like

Any luck getting your son to understand that it's not good to do that?

Hopefully you know the parent group well enough to know if something like this would come across correctly. It recognizes that sometimes children choose to do dumb things despite their parents' best efforts. And sometimes certain behaviors continue despite you telling your child over and over again not to.

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    While the parents may not believe it's okay for a child to wolf-whistle at girls, care should be taken not to assume they agree it's not okay to wolf-whistle at girls in general. Indeed, the tone of the messages suggests to me they are not surprised at all their son learned the technique and its rough customary social context but are embarrassed that he is emulating this behaviour. They may thus be quite indifferent to sexually mature men wolf-whistling but view it as age-inappropriate to do so aged 5. This possibility may impact the manner it would be wise to bring up the issue with them.
    – Will
    Oct 21 at 17:38
  • @Will that's part of knowing the parent group to know if it would come across correctly. My main reason for giving someone the benefit of the doubt is that they're less likely to feel like they need to defend themself. It's more likely to help the conversation move in a good direction.
    – Rob Watts
    Oct 21 at 19:11
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    the benefit of the doubt is the reason why I'd encourage caution against the statement quoted in your answer, which is a moral statement against behaviour that may apply to behaviour they habitually model or condone. It's all very well assuming that they don't, but if you tell them it's wrong they may perceive this as an attack anyway. There might be good reasons to do that in any case, but not ones that advance the parenting objectives.
    – Will
    Oct 22 at 14:09
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Society has to constantly make trade-offs between competing dangers from both sides. On the one hand, there is the danger of initially innocent behaviour escalating to harassment and violence. On the other hand there is the danger of people being punished for entirely legal and non-violent behaviour and speech that other people find offensive, disagreeable, or politically heretical. History provides many examples, where society tells its citizens "You can't say that!" and the those societies are rarely, in retrospect, ever considered to be the good guys. You say "It is clear to me, from my own observations and from my own experience as a male, how attitudes develop from seeds of thoughts and behaviours at very early ages," and exactly the same is true of authoritarian politics. If children learn that it is OK to use the power of the authorities (parental, school, or government) to stop other people doing things they don't like, but which are not actually themselves harmful, then that behaviour escalates too.

We all do things that other people don't like. We all hold opinions other people don't agree with. And while we all think wouldn't it be great if we could stop other people doing all those things that annoy us, once you have established the principle that it is OK to do that, then other people get to do it to us. We will not always be in power. And that's not so much fun. "Tolerance" only of things that don't offend us or annoy us is meaningless.

Liberal and tolerant societies usually adhere to some variant on JS Mill's Harm Principle - that the only justification for society to intervene in any individual's freedom of action is to prevent actual harm being done to others without their consent. And it's important for children to learn where the boundaries are. A boy who wolf-whistles, intending only to say "You're amazingly beautiful!", is not doing any harm. Intolerance of behaviour that is irritating but does no harm teaches the wrong lesson to both the boys and girls about the sort of society we all want to live in.

You don't give any indication your daughter was upset, and if she's not then you probably don't particularly want to distress her by telling her that this is dangerous or she ought to be offended when it's not intended that way. That could frighten her unnecessarily, induce an emotionally damaging fear of the opposite sex, or create actual hostility and conflict between classmates. It could also tip the boy's attitude from fun into actual active hostility, if they feel they are being punished unfairly. (The boy's friends and family, too.) And all children should be aware that other people are allowed to be culturally different, and to do things that might annoy or irritate us, but which so long as they do no harm are to be tolerated. On the other hand, they should also know what to do if it does escalate to credible threats of actual harm, and that they are not expected to put up with that.

So I would suggest this is a situation to keep an eye on - just to make sure it is not escalating into anything more dangerous - but to be clear that this is a case of a cultural difference to be tolerated. You might ask whether the boys are doing it in her presence, and whether it bothers her, but I'd not make a big deal of it.

And on the topic of how attitudes develop from seeds of thoughts and behaviours at very early ages, we might want to reflect on the research that suggests sexual violence arises more often from childhood repression of sexual behaviour, making it something dirty or forbidden, something to hide and be ashamed of. Boys who grow up believing that girls don't want to be admired or approached, and will always reject them, or that any attempt to initiate things with a girl will result in them being stamped on by society, are the ones most likely to seek less civilised alternatives and take it by force. The starving are the ones most tempted to steal a loaf. So the best way to avoid trouble is to make sure there is a well-marked pathway by which boys can meet girls in a way that's safe and comfortable for all parties. Don't just tell the boys 'No, that's wrong'; make sure they know what they ought to do to do it right. Five is way too young for the birds and the bees, of course, but it's not too young to be introduced to appropriate ways to get on friendly terms with the opposite sex, with tolerance for their many exotic cultural differences!

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    In my culture, it is impolite to comment on someone's appearance, pretty much full stop. "A boy who wolf-whistles, intending only to say 'You're amazingly beautiful!', is not doing any harm." You don't know what the woman feels; there's no way for you to know it's not harmful. It would be highly inappropriate to tell a woman she's amazingly beautiful. So is a wolf whistle. So is saying, "You've lost weight. You look great!" (What did I look like before, a whale?) I hope you understand these things mean different tings to different people. Oct 21 at 14:00
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    This actually happened to me when I was 19. I told someone in confidence that I had been sexually assaulted. (One in 4 women in the US have been.) The next day, as I was walking, the person said, "No wonder you were [assaulted]. You're walk is so damn sexy!" I'm sure they meant it as a compliment, but I was stunned, and was unable to walk unself-consciously after that for about two decades. Oct 21 at 14:05
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This is indeed a teachable moment. Perhaps, you are not even the only parent from the group who feels that way, and if you are, if you voice your concerns in the right way, more parents might look at the situation from a different perspective.

I think it would be totally fine to half-jokingly bring it up in the chat. “You know, guys, I’ve been thinking about this whole wolf-whistling thing… Don’t get me wrong, I understand it might be cute now, but on a more serious note, it would be great if kids were taught respectful manners from an early age. Perhaps, we should pay closer attention to the incident. What do you think?”

Choose your words even more carefully if you think that’s necessary. The point is drawing your fellow parents’ attention to the matter in an informal and non-confrontational manner might benefit some child. That’s why I believe doing that is worth it.

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  • "it would be great if kids were taught..." will come across as passive-aggressive. Also, I'd avoid the word "incident" as well, as it has a connotation of gravity (read: reportable to authorities) that might start the conversation off on the wrong foot. Oct 21 at 18:28
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You deal with this one on one with the parent of the kid that's doing it. Explain your side to them and see if it stops. If you tell your daughter she should be offended if someone wolf whistles at her, she will be offended and possibly hurt if someone does that (or maybe more so if they don't whistle at some point in the future).

The boy is not objectifying her sexually and it shouldn't be taken as that. He's showing out, trying to become the "head ape" with his peers because he can do something they can't do. And he probably has 0 idea of what his action even means, so making it a shameful thing will do as much harm to your daughter as it might to him.

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Not to play the devil's advicate, but to point out some aspects that a parent should be aware of in such situations, and which seem to remained unmentioned:

  • Since you are not a concerned party (your daughter has not complained and it is not your son who is the offender), taking the initiative may backfire - both in terms of your relations with other parents and teachers, but also, more importantly, in terms of how this is perceived by the kids: you may look as an overreacting parent, and your children may potentially be ashamed, looked down upon, bullied, etc. by their classmates.
  • Check the school regulations: there are likely rules for behaving in such situations... which most likely recommend not to take any action yourself, but bring it to the attention of the teacher.
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Teach your girls the understanding and the strength to simply ignore such a behaviour. They will be faced later as well with stupid people and that's a starting point for you to tell her/them how to deal with. I'm sure too that this boy does not know what he's doing but he will learn sooner or later that he won't have "success" with it when girls ignore him.

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    Why should a female ignore rude, degrading behavior? Is there anything wrong with speaking up against it? Most men who do it don't expect a woman to fall into their arms (success.) How far does this advice go? As a third-year resident physician, I had a male patient expose himself to me. Should that just be ignored as well? Because they are similar in intent. (Tellingly, my male superiors forbade me to inform the police, and did nothing to address the incident, even after he repeated the behavior with a female first year resident.) Oct 22 at 1:36
  • @anongoodnurse In principle, they shouldn't need to ignore rude, degrading behaviour. But in reality (as conveyed to me; I'm male and can therefore only replicate that info), reprimanding such behaviour potentially escalates the males' attention from "passing-by attention" to "full attention, and retaliating", which is making the immediate situation worse. (In context of parenting, though, I do see value in reprimanding wolf-whistling/catcalling at a young age, in the hopes that in the future, a bigger portion of males have learned not to do that.)
    – orithena
    Oct 22 at 11:15
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    If you ignore a certain behavior there is no "fun" for the person who shows it. In case of the patient just look away and say casually: "You should get dressed to avoid catching a cold." That's not the expected reaction and if more women react this way it will get boring. If someone touches you, hurt him where it really hurts. That's the borderline.
    – Thomas
    Oct 27 at 11:04

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