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sexual assault

How Do You Talk To Kids About Sexual Harassment? An Expert Weighs In

jen collins

jen collins

My kids and I have had some pretty honest conversations about sexual harassment and assault.  For one thing, I’ve been street harassed in front of them, and as a result, we’ve talked tachlis about this form of sexism.  For another, since I teach health and sex ed, so I’ve long made a point to talk to my kids about the range of forms abuses of sexuality can take.

But for a lot of people, the current media storm around sexual harassment has put this issue front and center, even in families where this topic has never before come up, and even in families with pretty young kids. So whether you are wondering how to explain the news, want to help keep your children safe, or are striving to change your community norms, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Teach kids about physical and verbal boundaries from day one

Thanks both to the emerging conversations about the topic, as well as to the range of topical videos, guides, and books that now exist, talking to young kids about consent and sexual abuse has gotten easier in recent years.

But somewhat counterintuitively, it can often feel harder to talk about sexual harassment since many people still find it hard to define.

So an easy way to bring up the topic is by using everyday examples. Movies are a good place to start, and you can ask things like, “Is it okay that the prince kisses Sleeping Beauty when she is asleep?” Or “What do you think about Linguini the cook, kissing Chef Colette in “Ratatouille” without asking her?” And, “How do you think Belle feels in “Beauty and the Beast” when Gaston keeps telling her she will marry him even though she obviously isn’t interested?” Additionally, you can reference any examples from the current news cycle that seem age-appropriate.

Then you want to make it clear that not only are some behaviors not okay for fictional characters and grown-ups, but they also aren’t okay in a kids’ own life. Like what? Well, kids need to learn that no one, not an adult, not a teenager, and not even another kid should be teasing them (or be teased) about sexual stuff, and they should understand that children shouldn’t be called names to do with sex or sexual body parts at all.

They should also know that even some “jokes,” or seemingly playful comments (“You have to be my girlfriend!”) cross the line when they keep happening, particularly if the person making them knows the recipient is uncomfortable.

Ultimately, kids should recognize that the difference between good-natured teasing or flirting, and sexual harassment is that when something is good-natured or flirty, both people enjoy it and when it is harassment, only one person does.

Talk to kids of all genders about all aspects of sexual harassment

My parents gave me a lot of freedom as a kid. But they also gave me a lot of warnings about how to stay safe. These were warnings that my younger brothers didn’t get, and which often came with the resigned acknowledgement (say when I had to get a ride home at night while my brother could take the bus) that, “It’s just different with girls.”

And it is different. We know that the vast majority of victims of sexual assault and harassment are female and the vast number of assailants are male. Indeed, we are swimming in a pool of toxic messages about gender (e.g.: boys still learn they need to prove their masculinity by pursuing girls and not taking no for an answer, and girls still learn to play hard-to-get to deflect slut-shaming), which allow us to write off sexual harassment as just normal stuff.

And while we need to acknowledge the significant gender differential apparent in all forms of sexual violence, we also know that boys can be victims, and that LGBTQ+ and gender nonconforming kids are particularly at risk.

This means that we have to include kids of all genders in any discussions we have. And during these discussions, we need to highlight the power boys still have over girls in this world while simultaneously recognizing that children of any gender can be in either the position of victim or of the perpetrator.

Set a Good Example

It’s not news that our kids learn from us at every turn. So it stands to reason that if they see us making degrading comments about people’s bodies or negatively judging them for their clothes or sexual choices, then they will learn that this is normal behavior.

But even beyond being thoughtful in the language we personally use, there is more that we should do. For example, we can stand up to sexual harassment when we see it. This is sometimes as easy as saying, “That’s not OK,” or, “I’m so sorry that happened to you,” rather than questioning someone’s experience by rationalizing, “Well, maybe you misunderstood what he meant…”

We can also start calling sexual harassment what it is instead of relying on non-sexual euphemisms like teasing, bullying or inappropriate behavior to describe it.  

And if you are at a loss as to how some of these strategies might play out in real life, there are good resources out there to help you. The group Hollaback, which fights street harassment around the globe, has some great tools for learning about bystander intervention, and parents of older kids may also be interested in some really solid tips that came out of a recent Harvard study on preventing sexual harassment and misogyny among teens.

Inform kids don’t alarm them

Last year, I put my middle school-aged daughter on a train to visit a relative 30 minutes away. I equipped her with a cell phone, let the conductor know she was traveling alone, and had a detailed plan for pick up on the other side. But just as I was getting her settled into her seat, and right before I was about the get off the train myself, I panicked.

I began to spurt out a litany of warnings. “Don’t talk to strange men. Put your bag on the seat next to you so no one sits there. Call me the second a man tries to talk to you. Actually do you want to move and sit with that woman over there?”

The result? It sure wasn’t that she was feeling newly empowered. Rather, her stomach began to hurt and we spent a frantic three minutes trying to decide if she needed to get off the train.

Ultimately, she stayed onboard, the trip went just fine, and we both learned a few things from the experience. My daughter learned that she loved feeling independent and I learned that putting my worst case scenario fears in my kid’s head helped no one.

So this year, when she began to take the subway alone to Hebrew school once a week after school, I decided to try a different approach. Instead of giving her frantic warnings every time she left, I decided to have a conversation the week before she started taking the train. So we sat down, did some test texts and calls, and discussed the route and options for possible subway delays.

I also reviewed some things that had come up in other circumstances. I reminded her to choose the car with the conductor, and to look for help from a mom-type traveling with kids if she had a problem, like a missed stop, a lost metrocard, or someone bothering her. I also emphasized that she always trust her gut and never worry about changing seats or cars just to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.

Then we moved on to discussing Hebrew school homework and what elective she might want to sign up for.

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