Lately, it’s hard to turn on the TV, pick up a newspaper or scroll through your social media feed without coming across something related to sexual harassment or assault. As much as we may try to keep our kids from seeing or reading these stories, some of the headlines still get through to them. Whether they overhear us talking, or hear from a friend at school about the cases, it’s hard to keep them totally in the dark about a national conversation that so far doesn’t have an end in sight.
In a couple meetings this week we’ve found ourselves asking, among other things, “What do we tell our kids?” The resounding answers have largely been, “We have no idea.” We thought we couldn’t be the only ones unsure of what to say, or whether we should even bring it up. In fact, a recent NBC News/Survey Monkey poll found that 40% of parents said they had specific conversation with their child about sexual harassment or assault as a result of the recent high profile cases. The majority of parents, however, 59%, haven’t had these conversations.
We sought out some of our favorite experts to get their advice on if, how, and when we should talk with our kids about this very sensitive and often uncomfortable topic. Hopefully, you’ll find their answers as helpful as we did.
Should we be talking to our kids about sexual harassment?
Yes. Missouri-based pediatrician Dr. Natasha Burgert says over the last eight weeks her practice has been getting increased questions from parents asking how to have these discussions. Many parents are asking because their kids have brought it up or asked them a question.
“It’s perfect fodder to start talking about this with our kids,” Burgert says. “This should be happening any time, but now we’re getting more opportunities to create these teachable moments.”
Positive Parenting Solutions founder and parenting expert Amy McCready agrees.
“I think this is one of those topics like talking to your kids about sex in general,” McCready says. “We have to do it early and often so it’s not as big of a deal.”
Is there a specific age we should start these conversations?
No. But the conversation is different depending on your child’s age and maturity level.
“The age of the kid matters a lot,” says Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard Graduate School of Education senior lecturer who has researched on children’s perceptions of misogyny and relationships. “If a six or seven year old asks a question because they hear from the news or through a friend, it’s important to be prepared for that question.”
“I think it should be at any age,” says Burgert. “From preschoolers all the way up to high schoolers, it just depends on the age and the point of what you’re trying to teach.”
For example, Dr. Burgert recently talked about sexual harassment with a second grade patient. She explained to him that sexual harassment is a form of bullying, and then the conversation became about what they’ve previously talked about with dealing with bullies. Putting it in terms that a young child is already familiar with can help them understand.
Educating younger children is often about helping them with vocabulary, McCready says. It can be as simple as explaining to them that they don’t have to hug anyone they don’t want to hug, and that they could say, “How about a fist bump or a high five instead?”
“With older kids it’s talking about boundaries and what’s ok with them in terms of touch,” explains McCready. She recommends asking your kids if they’re O.K. with certain types of touch, like if they are comfortable with a friend putting an arm around them. If so, great. If not, you can help them with words they can use, “Please take your hand off my shoulder” or “That doesn’t feel comfortable, please stop,” are both examples McCready gives.
“Your body is your body,” Burgert reminds her older patients. “The news cycle should be reminding us as parents that this topic of boundaries should be a continual conversation in our kids’ lives, regardless of age.”
Should we try to shield our kids from the recent news and latest accusations?
No. In fact, it’s a great way to start the conversation with older kids.
“What our data shows is that parents aren’t having these conversations, that they need to be having more of them,” Weissbourd says. “This being in the news is a good way to communicate how pervasive it is and how people in power can exploit others in this way and how important it is to stand up for yourself and for other people.”
Using the news as a place to start the conversation also gives you an opportunity to make the conversation about a third party, rather than about your kids. Burgert says this can make it an easier conversation to have. One place she likes to start is by asking “Have you seen anything that makes you uncomfortable?” or “Have your friends experienced anything that has made you or them uncomfortable?”
“They’re more willing to talk about their friends or things they’ve seen,” Burgert says. “In turn it makes them feel more comfortable to bring it back to themselves if they have experienced anything.”
Do we have to make it a big, important discussion?
No. With everything going on in the news, it can actually make the conversation more natural and a place to start. Burgert recommends casually bringing it up at dinner or during a car ride. You could start simply by asking “Hey did you hear about this today?”
“I think we underestimate the importance of quick five minute conversations every once in a while rather than really sitting down once for a big heart to heart,” Burgert says. “By having casual, frequent conversations you let your kids know they don’t have to make an appointment to talk to mom about something important.”
The key is to meet kids where they are, and try to listen as much as you talk.
“I feel like it’s really important to listen and to understand how a young person is making sense of all of this,” Weissbourd says. “What kids want to know is that they can always talk to you about it and you can provide them with guidance and information they can trust. Being open to the conversation is important to create the relationship with your kids to address anything.”
Can we talk about it without saying S-E-X?
No. As uncomfortable as it may be to talk about sexual harassment with your kids, or even use the word sex around them, experts agree using correct vocabulary is essential to helping kids learn at any age.
McCready says this starts as early as when you are telling young children what their body parts are, instead of using cutesy names for anatomy. “If you’ve always been talking nonchalantly about sexuality and giving the right names for body parts, you can build their ability to talk about it.”
Patients at Dr. Burgert’s practice tend to want to shy away from using the words “sexual harassment,” but they don’t have to just because it contains s-e-x.
“You can use the word sexual harassment without equating it to sex, but equating it to gender,” she says. For example, with a 5th grade patient she explained sexual harassment as using your gender to get something that you want. The child understood, replying in effect “Like when a boy gets a girl to do something because they are bigger and stronger?”
Burgert further explains that by starting from a young age, you’re building your child’s verbal toolbox. The more they are exposed to certain words, the more they build on that understanding. While the picture in their mind of what a word means changes over time, if you use different words as they get older they miss out on building that “mental scaffolding.”
All in all, creating a relationship with your kids where they feel comfortable talking to you about anything can make a big difference. And as Burgert reminds us, “It’s a good opportunity as parents to practice the difficult conversations. That’s part of being a parent and we learn as we go, but we shouldn’t be afraid to talk.”
For more resources, our experts recommend the following;
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Kid Smartz.
It’s Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends by Robie H. Harris
It’s So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families by Robie H. Harris
It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris
The NBC News|SurveyMonkey poll was conducted online from Nov. 27 through Nov. 29, 2017, among a national sample of 3,772 adults. Respondents for this nonprobability survey were selected from the nearly three million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day. Results have an error estimate of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points. For full results and methodology, click here.