Challenging the “Norm” in Locker-Room Culture

My seven-year-old son is a hockey enthusiast and plays competitively for a team with an intense schedule. Until recently, my biggest challenge with the sport had been the time spent commuting to and from practice three times each week and watching the games, while still making homework and religious school the top priorities. Two other major challenges revolved around food: preparing a nutritious dinner for my family amidst all the schlepping of hockey gear from the house to the car to the rink and back again and making sure the cooler was filled with pre- and post-practice snacks! Like I said, those were my biggest challenges until I encountered a new situation.

Keep in mind, of course, that I use the word “challenges” facetiously. I recognize that hockey is an expensive sport and there are far greater and more serious challenges in life. It has been a privilege to be a hockey mom, and I am fortunate that my “challenges” do not involve illness or hardship. That isn’t to discount the fact that something, which seems innocent on the surface, cannot escalate into something more serious. In this case, my concern was the so-called cultural locker-room “norm,” which perpetuates unhealthy development in our children.

At a recent practice, I learned from some of the veteran hockey moms that the locker room would soon become a place where doting caretakers who help tie laces and unpack gear would no longer be welcome. Next season, our hockey players will be expected to change into their uniforms and lace their own skates without adult assistance. Of course, I fully support the expectation that our children will learn how to prepare themselves for their hobbies or sports. But wait a minute . . .

This is the locker room. The place without explicit rules in an era in which any single moment, even private ones, can be captured and uploaded within seconds to Instagram. This is the locker room where our bodies are often exposed in their most vulnerable states. This is the locker room where a recent news story featuring NFL players highlighted a culture in which status, aggression, profanity, hazing, homophobia, misogyny, and in this particular case, racist remarks were all considered part of the “norm.”

This past week, my son and I entered the locker room to hear the following exchange between his teammates:

“Hey, Ryan, how do you spell I Cup?”

Putting on his kneepads, Ryan replied, “That’s easy. I-C-U-P.”

The other boy, Jordan, laughed with excitement at the response he’d been anticipating: “I see you pee! I see you pee! Nice one . . . you fell for it . . . Get it? I-C-U-P!”

Ryan’s eyes widened with amazement, as if he were wondering why he’d never thought of that himself. He began to laugh hysterically. Weighed down by all his gear and without awareness of the area around him, he fell to the ground and into the “space” occupied by another child who was changing out of his clothes.

As Ryan pulled himself up, he said, “Well, you wanna see my King Kong dance?”

Jason chimed in and asked, “Did you say your King Cock dance?”

At this point, the boys had gone from talking about pee to cock, and I was a bit nervous about where the conversation was headed. Just then, innocence prevailed, and Michael changed the subject by exclaiming with a bare chest, “I never get cold!”

Standing in his underwear, searching for his thermals, my son loudly added, “Yeah, me neither!”

Across the room, Max stood on the bench, changed the pitch of his voice, and asked anyone who would listen, “Do I sound like a girl?”

Nobody replied because another teammate was competing for attention with his own nonsensical commentary. Meanwhile, Jordan placed his padded hockey shorts over his thermal pants and shouted, “I have a big fat butt!” This was followed by a farting noise.

My head was spinning from the noise, energy, silliness, and incessant chatter that was seemingly about nothing and which continued to escalate until the team left the locker room to hit the ice. However, it wasn’t a conversation about nothing. It was, in fact, a conversation about EVERYTHING . . . everything that I hope my son and other children will learn to recognize as sensitive subjects that “innocently” creep their way into the locker room, creating a culture that masks significant issues, including competition, pressure to conform to the ideal masculine or feminine identity, respect for boundaries, gender stereotypes, and body safety.

One could say that, in many respects, these seven-year-old boys are behaving like typical seven-year-olds who are curious about their bodies and observations of the greater culture around them. In the years to come, I am certain these issues will become even more pronounced and colorful in their conversations. But it’s not just the years to come that I need to concern myself with—it’s next season. My son and his teammates will be left to their own devices to decipher the culture within the locker room—that is, unless parents, teachers, and coaches specifically outline their expectations regarding behavior in this close-quarters setting.

Curious about the current thinking on this, I asked several middle and high school coaches, physical education teachers, and students if they had discussed ground rules or expectations for locker-room behavior prior to starting a new season. In response, they all said they stressed the importance of cleanliness and respect (a vague concept to children if not explained clearly) and prohibited the use of digital cameras in the locker room. None of the people I interviewed seemed to have a firm handle on what is required to create a safe and dignified locker-room culture. In addition, my investigation shows that most parents do not communicate to their children what type of behavior is expected of them in the locker room and how to respond to bullying, harassment, sexual comments, rough housing, and verbal/physical abuse, which are all potential locker-room behaviors.

With an intention to effect change, I also spoke with teens (all of whom play competitive sports) about their locker-room behavior to get a better grasp on what’s going on from their perspective. Several said that they based their behavior solely on cultural and social assumptions. Taking this conversation further, I challenged the group to come up with some ground rules for creating safer locker rooms. Here is what they suggested:

      • Enlist undercover students who are “on the look out” for students who behave aggressively toward others.
      • Create a check-in and checkout policy so athletes don’t spend unnecessary time in the locker room.
      • Post specific rules in bathroom stalls.
      • Place a “suggestion” box in the locker room for anonymously reporting both aggressive/harassing behaviors and good behaviors.
      • Hang signs on the locker-room walls to remind students that the locker room is a bully-free zone.
      • Conduct mandatory seminars for students and parents on locker-room safety.
      • Implement more adult supervision in the locker room.

These young athletes all had great ideas and a real interest in promoting lock-room awareness. I encouraged them to speak with their coaches about implementing these ideas. And, as a fellow parent, I encourage you to speak with your children about locker-room behavior—whether or not your child plays a competitive sport. All too often, parents make the assumption that their children will be supervised in the locker room or that they will figure things out. This is not enough.

If we want our children to flourish, thrive, and grow on and off the field, we must clearly communicate our expectations of them before we are on the other side of the locker-room door. Ultimately, our goal is to change cultural norms, and it must begin by discussing and setting our expectations for behavior. Using my earlier example from my experience with my son and his teammates, here are some tips for addressing locker room behavior and expectations with your child:

Talk about joking around and verbal aggression (I-C-U-P and Farting Noises): Younger children have a natural curiosity about how their bodies function and often find potty talk empowering because of the reaction they receive. But we need to instill in our children that a sense of humor and laughter are wonderful, but not at the expense of another person’s feelings or body image. The I-C-U-P could have turned from “I see you pee” to “I see (insert name here) pee.” Fortunately, it did not. But let’s help our children distinguish between laughing with someone and laughing at someone.

Moreover, let’s help our children understand that what seems like an innocent joke can quickly turn into verbal aggression, bullying, or a pattern of speaking that routinely puts other people down by making fun of them. By asking your child to consider how it might feel to be in another person’s shoes, you are fostering empathy. This helps children to be accountable for their behavior when it comes to joking around. They are also more likely to reach out to their peers and act spontaneously to help others feel more included.

Equally important, but not always easy, is encouraging your child to speak up if “friends” take a joke too far. It can be as simple as saying, “That’s not funny.” Help them practice what to say in an uncomfortable situation. I realize this may sound idealistic because many children don’t feel comfortable speaking up or the act of doing so could jeapordize their “status” among peers. Nevertheless, practicing this response will strengthen a child’s physical and emotional voice, which can be effective and empowering.

Making fun of one’s gender and behavior (“Do I sound like a girl?”): Boys and girls learn from a young age what our cultures’ expectations are of the sexes. In the case of a boy, he learns that he should “act like a man”—strong, confident, tough. In the case of a girl, she learns to “act like a woman”—social, good looking, passive. When the boy in the locker room asked, “Do I sound like a girl?” we can interpret his question in numerous ways. Perhaps he was just seeking attention or maybe making fun of “girls” by mocking their voice. Either way, imagine if a fellow female member of the team was present to hear this. How might she feel hearing a boy mock the tone of her voice?

When children find an opportunity to taunt their peers about gender, the teasing tends to target those who do not fit (or even those who do) the gender expectations for the ideal “boy” or “girl.” We also know one of the greatest insults a boy or girl can experience is to be told that he or she sounds or acts like the opposite sex.

Now is the time to talk to boys and girls about respect, what it looks like and how we all deserve to be treated with dignity.

Although we can’t predict what other children will say or do, we can help our own children recognize why it’s hurtful and harmful to reinforce gender stereotypes. Ultimately, we want to challenge our children to figure out how to stay true to themselves and stand up for what they believe (whether it be in front of their peers or simply by talking about it with you), not become passive followers, or partake in a locker-room culture that disrespects gender and or sexual orientation.

Body image (“I have a big fat butt”): If you ask a person to recall the first time someone made a comment about his or her body, chances are the memory will date back to when he or she was young and a negative comment was made about his or her appearance, weight, size, manner of walk, or any other identifying feature. While such comments play a significant role in poor body image, dissatisfaction, and self-esteem, it’s also important to recognize that such comments can be characterized as harassment.

I strongly suggest teaching your child the term “sexual harassment” by the time he or she is in middle school. A recent study—Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School—found that students in grades 7–12 who admitted to sexually harassing others didn’t think of it as a big deal (44 percent), and many were trying to be funny (39 percent).

We need to help today’s youth understand that sexual harassment is defined as an unwanted sexual behavior or activity that includes telling jokes, comments, staring/leering, rumors, taking pictures, sending texts, threats, or ongoing sexual attention. It can also involve touching another person, which may involve cornering someone, tickling, grabbing, or rubbing against them.

Sexual harassment and bullying differ in the typical age of the students involved. Bullying occurs throughout childhood, whereas sexual harassment typically begins with adolescence. Researchers have found that sexual harassment can begin as early as elementary school, but the prevalence increases in higher grades as more students enter puberty (Petersen & hyde, 2009).

Changing out of their clothes (Falling on the floor and invading someone’s personal space): This is a great opportunity to begin a conversation about boundaries and privacy. When discussing personal boundaries with your child, you can explain that it’s about recognizing and respecting the personal space or boundary that marks the space between “you” and “me” (stopitnow.org).

Before letting your child undress in a locker room, explain that a boundary works like an invisible wall that outlines each person as a separate individual or a protective bubble, and every person has right to set limits. In the case presented earlier, Ryan fell to the ground and onto his fellow teammate who was changing. I get it—locker rooms are often crowded, and there is limited space for unloading equipment and gear. But nevertheless, remind your child about the importance of respecting other people’s boundaries and your child’s right for others not to invade theirs. Some other points to remind children about changing in the locker room or shower areas:

              • No staring at others who are naked or semi-dressed.
              • Let people have their own space while getting dressed.
              • After showering, put your clothes on right away; don’t walk around naked.

 

Finally, pubertal changes may begin as early as age eight for girls and age nine for boys, but some experience these changes in their teens. Either way, early or late puberty, almost every child will wonder, Am I Normal? Once our children are in a locker-room setting, this issue may be intensified by feeling as if everyone is looking at them or feeling insecure about their bodies as they compare and contrast the changes they are experiencing. Please do not forget to acknowledge these concerns (even if your child has never told you that he or she is concerned), and let them know boys and girls all develop at different ages.

Competition (I’m not cold. Me neither. I’m never cold): The very nature of playing a sport involves some level of competition. However, when the competitiveness follows the players from the field or gymnasium into the locker room, someone ends up feeling less than. In my example, the boys were actually competing for points over who could withstand being the coldest. But it could just as easily be the fastest . . . the strongest . . . the loudest . . . the toughest. The pressure children feel to “win” one over their peers comes at the expense of the true spirit of healthy competition required to win a game.

So what’s a parent to do? Engage in conversations about how competition involves one’s personal best for himself or herself as well as a contributing member to the team. The desire a child displays to try hard, do his or her best, play fairly, and win a game is wonderful. However, the same desire to “win” or compete for a social position can contribute to an unhealthy locker-room culture.

A good way to talk with your children about this type of behavior is to ask them about the “rules” they must follow in their sport—for example, not stepping over certain field lines, penalty shots, number of time outs, and so on), and then ask them about what they think the rules ought to be in the locker room when it comes to behavior.

Enlisting your child or the team in creating the rules allows them to take ownership of the behavioral expectation and culture they wish to create. This is also where coaches play a critical role to ensure they work to outline and review what the locker-room rules entail. This way, when a locker room “rule” is violated, everyone is aware and/or reminded of the behavior that is expected. When rules are violated and broken, appropriate consequences can be discussed.

* * *

When next season comes, I will relinquish my duties as my son’s assistant reluctantly. I will also take all the necessary steps to raise his awareness of what is and is not acceptable within the confines of the locker room. This is not a one-time lecture or serious sit-down talk, but a series of short conversations that will happen over time, especially when I know he’s the most receptive to listening: either while playing floor hockey, eating his favorite post-game meal, or before bed with the lights low and no distractions. (By the way, research has found the best time to connect with boys is while they are engaged in another activity.) My greatest hope is that he will speak up, as I have taught him to, in the event anything occurs (or is occurring) that makes him or one of his teammates uncomfortable. I hope you will too—because it’s critical that we all work together to create the safe and supportive culture that the locker room should be.

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