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Talking to Our Children about Sexual Harassment and Consent

As parents whose natural inclination is to protect our children from harm, we may find ourselves weighed down by the realization we can’t shield them completely from sexual harassment or abuse. With these issues coming up in the news seemingly daily, it can be challenge to know what we should and shouldn’t share with our children.  Our Vice President of Education, Jen Slonaker, teamed up with WBUR’s Cary Golberg to help families respond to comments and questions from their older children about these topics, whether they are being spurred by the recent news or children’s personal experiences. While we may not be able to keep our children entirely sheltered from the issues of sexual harassment and abuse, we can help them develop tools to navigate different circumstances of workplace sexual harassment or abuse they may encounter. 

The bottom line message parents and other caring adults can provide to their kids is that no one should touch another person's body without that person's enthusiastic consent or permission. Sounds simple, but often times, it is anything but. Our culture's toxic masculinity complicates this message by creating an environment thatencourages sexual assault  and reinforces gender norms that are harmful for all our kids, no matter their gender.  

This month’s Parent Buzz provides an overview of approaching these conversations, some sample responses, and a list of additional resources.

 

So how can we approach these conversations with our children?

Communicate early and often – and keep in mind that it is never too late to start talking! Talking about bodies, relationships, consent, sex, and sexual assault allows parents to articulate their values and provide information. It also lays the foundation for skills necessary to navigate the all-too-common circumstances of sexual harassment and assault. Showing your child that you are open to their questions and want to have conversations about these tough topics will make them feel more comfortable talking with you if they see or experience abuse now or in the future.

Skills like self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness are applicable to preventing sexual harassment and assault in a number of key ways. For example:

  • You can build empathy and social awareness by encouraging your child to think about and pay attention to how their actions make another person feel.
  • Share with your child your value and expectation that they respect others’ boundaries and stop any behavior that makes another person uncomfortable.
  • Helping your child develop self-awareness and recognition of their own feelings increases their ability to assess a situation and determine the actions they can safely take.

Throughout the conversations you have with their children, there are four things you can keep in mind:

  • Lead with your values
  • Encourage empathy
  • Practice future behaviors
  • Keep the door open for further conversations

 

Fitting the conversation in and some sample responses

So how do you build these skills with your kids when you only have 15 minutes on the way to basketball practice, or five minutes at the dinner table before your child starts their homework, and what might each of these look like?  Don’t worry, it’s not a one-time conversation! Here are some ways to start:

When your child says, "But it's just a joke!" (As in, stories involving Sen. Al Franken and former President George H.W. Bush.)

  • Lead with your values
    • "In our family we believe that it's never OK to touch someone's body if they don't want to be touched. I would never want someone to touch you in a way that made you uncomfortable, and I expect that you won't touch someone in a way that makes them uncomfortable."
  • Encourage empathy
    • "How might that person have felt when they were groped?" "How might you have felt in that situation?"
  • Practice future behaviors
    • "If you saw a friend doing this, what words might you use to tell them to stop?" "How would you remind yourself not to engage in this kind of 'joke'?" "What would you do if someone touched you in a way that made you uncomfortable and said it was a joke?"
  • Keep the door open for further conversations
    • "I bet when you heard about these stories, it might have seemed like this kind of touching isn't that big of a deal when it's meant as a joke. I'm glad we're talking about it." "You can always tell me if someone touches you or makes you uncomfortable in any way. You will not get in trouble."

 

If your child is hearing or reflecting a message that, "It's part of the workplace culture. If you want to get ahead, deal with it." (As in, recent stories about TV host Charlie Rose, and Harvey Weinstein.)

  • Lead with your values:
    • "These types of unwanted sexual behaviors in the workplace are never OK and should be reported to HR. They are gross abuses of power that these men should be held accountable for. They are never the fault of the victim and I want you to know you have the right to leave a situation like this immediately if you feel it's safe to do so. Workplaces should be responsible for keeping their workers safe, not protecting perpetrators of sexual assault."
  • Encourage empathy:
    • "How might it have felt for that person who thought they had to put up with their boss'/mentor’s unwanted nudity or kissing/touches in order to keep their job?" “A supervisor or boss has a lot more power than the staff person in this situation. How does that factor in to how someone might respond?” "How might you have felt in that situation?"
  • Practice future behaviors:
    • "What would you do if a coworker told you this happened to them?" "If you thought you could say something to HR or another supervisor, what words might you use?" "Knowing that these situations are never the fault of the victim, what do you think you would do if you found yourself in a situation with a boss who felt uncomfortable or unsafe?"
  • Keep the door open for further conversations:
    • "I'm really glad we're talking about this. I hope that you never encounter these kinds of terrible behaviors in the workplace, but it's really important to talk about them and think about what you might do if it happens in your job. You can always come to me with questions you have or things you hear."

 

If your child is hearing or reflecting messages like, "Why didn't they just leave, or say something, or tell them to stop?" (As in, recent stories about journalist Mark Halperin and comedian Louis C.K.)

  • Lead with your values:
    • "These types of unwanted sexual behaviors in the workplace are never OK" (etc., see example above).
  • Encourage empathy
    • "What about that situation might have made it hard for the victim to leave or tell the person to stop?" "How might it have felt for that person who thought they had to put up with their boss'/mentor's unwanted nudity or kissing/touches in order to keep their job?" "How might you have felt in that situation?"
  • Practice future behaviors
    • "What would you do if you were in a meeting or on a call and realized the other person was masturbating?" "If you heard that a colleague was doing these unwanted behaviors and you thought you could say something to HR or another supervisor, what words might you use?" "What would you do or say if a colleague told you that masturbating in front of another coworker was OK and you should try it?"
  • Keep the door open for further conversations
    • "I'm really glad we're talking about this. I hope that you never encounter these kinds of terrible behaviors in the workplace, but it's really important to talk about them and think about what you might do if it happens in your job. You can always come to me with questions you have or other things you hear." "It's a totally natural reaction to "freeze up" or not know what to do or say in shocking situations like this. If you experience or witness a situation like this and freeze up or don't know what to do, please don't feel guilty. The person at fault in the situation is the perpetrator."

 

If you or anyone you know needs support around sexual assault, you can reach the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) at 800-841-8371 or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

 

Additional Resources

Below are some additional articles and videos that can help you to thinking about consent and how to talk to your children about consent.

 

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