Our daughters spent two years sharing bathrooms and locker rooms with boys while they were attending public school in Europe. It would appear that schools and public facilities are heading that way here in the US, so I thought I’d share our anecdotal experience with those wondering how they’re going to navigate what looks to be our new normal as a nation.
We found ourselves in multiple situations that we could not change or even complain about. We had to be creative in how we handled them--wanting at once to be wise stewards of our daughters’ hearts, while at the same time not wanting to drive a wedge between ourselves and the culture we had come to love and desired to serve. This dual goal is really at the heart of any Christian parent in any scenario.
The very week our girls started attending a national public school, we learned our middle daughter (then in second grade) would be going with her classmates by public bus to a local high school each week for the purpose of taking a swimming class at the school’s pool. Going against the grain of culture, I asked the teacher if I might join the class on the trip each week. Initially my concern was that my child who did not proficiently speak the language was going to navigate public transportation with 25 other eight year olds and one teacher. Thankfully the teacher obliged and I found myself in the locker room with the girls each week as they changed and showered before and after swimming.
I was startled to realize that the male swimming coach was free to roam the girls’ locker room while they showered and changed. Each week while 15 eight year old girls stripped down to nothing, the twenty-something coach walked into the locker room and lectured the girls about class and what to expect during the coming lesson. As soon as I understood that this was the norm, my mission to make sure that my child was safe on public transportation became a mission to make sure all of the girls in the class were safe in the locker room. Feeling firmly that a female adult should be present with the girls when a man was free to roam the locker room, I never missed a class.
While the locker rooms at the high school were indeed gender separate, we were surprised to find that locker rooms at local gyms were not. Rather one large locker room served both genders. You can imagine our surprise when my husband entered the door marked for men and my daughters and I entered the door marked for women and we ended up in the same room, surveying people of both genders and all ages changing in one place. Typically we girls separated from my husband and found a locker aisle with no one in it and changed there. But knowing that anyone was free to be in there, we were careful not to send a child alone to the bathroom or locker room during our stay at the facility (and actually, we never let our kids go to the bathroom alone in any country at any facility ever—it’s just not wise, no matter the time or place).
A final scenario that surprised us, which is not related to bathrooms but is related to gender, was the differences we observed in boys and girls sports. When our second oldest daughter’s class went to PE, the girls were sent into the forest to collect flowers while the boys played soccer. When our middle daughter expressed an interest in playing soccer on a team, we found there were no girls teams to join. This reality, combined with the commonplace beauty pageant and female nudity on television and billboards, created a need for us to be especially vigilant in the way we shaped our girls’ understanding of the value of being a woman. I found myself needing to chat frequently with them about the intrinsic worth and capabilities of women, not readily portrayed in the scenery or opportunities in our city. When our middle daughter’s desire to play soccer would not relent, we approached the local boys’ team and they allowed her to join.
While different motives are behind bathroom integration in Europe and the United States, the outcomes will be similar—boys and girls in bathrooms, changing and showering together. In Europe I sensed it was the result of a cavalier attitude about nudity and privacy. More than once we witnessed locals completely changing their clothes in parking lots or auditoriums—while we stifled our gasps they thought nothing of it. Once when I walked into our youngest’s kindergarten class, I witnessed boys and girls all changing clothes together in the middle of the room, preparing for nap time. For them, privacy or separation was not a concern.
We here in the States are driven by equality. I personally have strong feelings that women should be afforded every opportunity that men are. The absence of girls’ sports and the ever presence of beauty pageants grated on my very core. Through gritted teeth I told my girls it shouldn’t be that way. When I asked neighbors and friends about it, I never did encounter strong feelings. I witnessed a laid back acceptance that this was simply the way it is.
In conversations here in the US, when I share the above experiences with Americans, I notice an immediate assumption that Europeans have somehow evolved further than Americans. Almost without fail the listener chimes in, “See? Why are we such prudes (or why are we so violent) in the US? They are fine with nudity over there and they don’t have issues with rape or assault…” There is an assumption that because they are more permissive or inclusive or whatever, they are better off. But I can tell you that is not true. Based on our observations and conversations with many friends, it is evident that the vast majority of kids are sexually active by the time they’re 15. Many girls’ partners are well into their 20s (we heard of a handful in their 30s) and this isn’t questioned or cause for concern. Based on statistics we know that over half of all pregnancies are aborted. We saw firsthand that women’s bodies are objectified and commodified. Their cavalier attitude about nudity and sex and gender is not without consequence.
The bottom line, really, for any parent in the US or abroad, is to be a parent. You are the steward of your children’s lives, so choose boundaries you can live with and find a way to implement them. Look for creative ways to guide your children’s hearts while also engaging the culture in which God has placed you. For us, we could not change a foreign nation. We could not go to a foreign principal and ask that an entire societal norm be changed. But we could think outside the box and join our kids in their classrooms and locker rooms. We could see a boys team and ask if a girl could join it. We could view billboards with our kids and talk about them rather than letting their messages seep in without a critical thought. My encouragement to you is this—whether you loathe or welcome our coming bathroom changes—be the parent. You can creatively navigate a path for your child that also fulfills your responsibility to be a light wherever God has called you.