“Mommy, what’s sexual harassment?” You were hoping that the daily news reports of famous and powerful men being accused of sexual misconduct would fly right past your kid’s radar. How do you talk about sexual harassment if you haven’t even talked about sex?
Take one topic at a time. Try tackling the news and the sex angles separately. Young children have a hard time understanding abstract concepts. But you can begin to teach them about the news, and that what they see and hear on the radio, TV, and other devices is information about what happened in the world. Learn more about how to teach media-literacy skills to preschoolers.
There’s no reason to talk specifically about sexual harassment with very young kids unless they ask about it. If they bring it up, be prepared. These tips can help you talk about sexual harassment with kids from preschool into early elementary:
Ask open-ended, nonjudgmental questions. This buys some time and lets you know what information you need to correct, what you can skip, and what you need to focus on.
Ask questions such as: “Where did you learn that phrase?,” “What else did you hear?,” “What do you think it is?,” “Why do you think that?,” and “How did it make you feel to hear that?”
Remain neutral and reassuring. When young kids sense that the important adults in their lives are angry or upset, they can sometimes feel like it’s their fault. It may seem obvious to you, but it’s worth telling your kids that you’re not mad at them.
Say things like: “It’s always OK to tell me something even if you think it’s something bad.” “This is a tough topic, but I’m glad you asked me about it.”
Be truthful but don’t over-explain. You don’t have to offer kids anything more than what they need to know to satisfy their curiosity. Use terms they’ll understand — for example, “bully,” “private,” “private parts,” and even “making babies” if your family uses that phrase.
Say: “Harassment means bullying. Sexual harassment is when someone talks about their own or someone else’s body or private parts — but not when it’s appropriate, like at the doctor. Sometimes a sexual harasser will touch or hug the other person without asking permission.”
Explain why it’s on the news. Even with small children who don’t have a grasp on the concept of the 24-hour news cycle, it helps to put matters in context. Otherwise, the constant news coverage can make them feel overwhelmed and confused. If you can, keep the news turned off when young kids are listening or watching. Seek out age-appropriate news sources instead.
Say: “Sexual harassment is against the law — just like taking something that doesn’t belong to you. The people in the news may have broken the law.”
Help them protect themselves and others. Take the opportunity to reinforce lessons around bullies and boundaries. Remind them their bodies are their own and no one has the right to talk about them or touch them in any way that makes them uncomfortable. If your child’s preschool or elementary school has a policy about students not touching other students, you can talk about why that’s important and what happens to other students who can’t follow this rule. Explain that they also must respect other people’s right to keep their bodies private.
Say: “If someone says something about your body or touches you or if you see someone bullying someone else, you should tell them to stop and tell the adult in charge.” If necessary, explain that your kid wouldn’t get in trouble for telling, even though bullies say they shouldn’t tell.
Try these tips to talk to tweens and teens about sexual harassment in the news:
Ask questions and listen. Draw kids out by asking what they’ve read and watched and what they think about it. Say: “Are your friends or teachers talking about the latest news?”, “Why do you think this is such a big deal?”, “Who do you believe and why?” Encourage them to show evidence for their opinions. Get more tips on teaching media literacy to kids.
Compare how different apps, sites, and TV shows cover the same story. Look at your teen’s favorite media, such as YouTube, Twitter, Buzzfeed, Facebook, and Snapchat. Watch clips from The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight with Jon Oliver, and even Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live. Look at the headlines, videos, memes, and other “hooks” they use to get people’s attention.
Ask: “Can you tell what’s a legitimate story, what’s satire, and what might be ‘fake’ news?”, “Who do you think the audience is for each site?”, “Does humor make a story less credible — or more believable?”
Read user comments. Though internet comments may be littered with swear words and negativity, they offer a chance for kids to consider how issues can be divisive and emotional. Sites such as Reddit feature lots of opinionated commentary. Understanding others’ views is an important step toward finding common ground.
Ask: “How would you engage with this person in real life?”, “Is it possible to have a dialogue with people who disagree with you online?”, “Do you think the commenter has credibility on the issue they’re weighing in on?”
Watch old movies. Old films are little time capsules of cultural norms that may be completely outdated and even puzzling for kids who’ve grown up in the new millennium. Compare movies with outdated gender roles to ones that defy gender stereotypes and discuss how our attitudes have changed.
Talk about objectivity and bias. The news is supposed to be completely objective. But the author’s perspective can make its way into a story, through word choices, quotes, and even the people used as sources. And on social media, bias can be reinforced when people read only stories that validate their point of view and aren’t exposed to the full range of news and opinion on a topic.
Ask: “Does the author make assumptions about the reader?”, “How would people who grew up differently from you feel about this story?”, “What news stories show up in your social media feeds? Do they represent a certain viewpoint?”
Talk about consent. When you have The Talk with your kids about the birds and the bees, remember to discuss consent. Tweens and teens need to understand that they must give and get permission to initiate anything sexual — from talking to touching. Popular media can give kids the wrong idea about boys’ and girls’ roles in relationships. And when kids flirt online, they can send mixed messages. When you evaluate news stories about sexual harassment, talk about how people can abuse their power by ignoring others’ basic needs. Make sure kids understand that if anyone violates them or makes them feel uncomfortable sexually, they should report it to an adult. These books can help kids understand the importance of consent.
Share your comments below