Parents think they do a good job parenting if they have "the talk" with their kids about sex, drugs and alcohol; but how many include sexual harassment in "the talk"? The current #MeToo Movement provides parents a launching pad for a discussion with their kids regarding the different facets of sexual harassment, how to protect themselves, how to respond, and how not to be the perpetrator of it.
I wish I had done so when our now-adult daughters were teens. Two of our girls experienced sexual harassment at school. Neither were physically assaulted, but both experienced verbal sexual harassment, one by male student and one by a male college professor.
Below are a few areas to start the discussion with your kids in an age-appropriate way.
- No one touches the private areas of their bodies, nor do they touch anyone else's even when asked to do so.
- No secrets. Tell your kids it is not safe to keep secrets from you. Let them know they will not be in trouble for telling you any secret someone else asked them to keep. Any safe adult would not ask a child or teen to keep secrets for them.
- Trust their gut. God has given each of us a "gut feeling" to alert us when we might be in danger. You are wise to listen to it and teach your kids to do the same. Let your kids be the guide regarding to whom they show affection. Do not make them hug or kiss anyone. Yes, you read that right—not even the grandparents. Let your kids learn to trust their gut with whom they choose to be close. These instincts alert them to who is safe and who is not. I'm not saying if your child doesn't want to kiss someone that person is unsafe. But when you pressure your kids to show affection when they are not comfortable doing so, they learn to not trust their instincts. They need their instincts to keep themselves safe, especially as they grow older and spend more time away from you.
- You trust their gut as well. Give them the freedom to tell you when they feel "weird" about someone or a situation. Always give your child the benefit of the doubt. By defending the other person you erode your child's ability to trust their safety instincts and their trust in you. If they don't trust you, they will not come to you for help.
- Immediately deal with the situation. Do not send your child back into the situation unless you know 100 percent that he is safe. When one of our daughters was in high school, a male classmate thought it was fun to bully her with sexually explicit comments. My daughter told me about his inappropriate comments after she endured them for a few weeks. The next day I made an appointment to talk with the teacher. He was respectful and believed our daughter. I explained that I did not want her to retell this story several times. If she needed to tell it to an administrator, it needed to happen that day. We talked to the superintendent. The next day the superintendent firmly addressed the situation with the student. He told him one more offense would go on his school record. That was the end of the harassment.
- Teach your kids to speak up for others. Even if they don't have the courage to do so in public, teach them to tell you or a trusted adult when they feel someone else is being sexually harassed. In my daughter's story, there was another student who was present when the boy harassed her. He did not stand up for her nor report his friend's behavior. As a result, he was looped in with his friend's bad behavior and received the same discipline from the superintendent. Those who sexually harass are bullies. They do their dirty work when and where they will have least resistance. Give your child the courage to speak up for others.
- No amount of sexual harassment is okay. Another one of our daughters was sexually harassed by her professor. Recently she recalled the experience, "It's hard to know what's happening. It's so subtle. We are trained to recognize the extreme things. But the little things that add up. If you squash the little things [by not addressing them], we're saying, 'It's okay for you to act this way.'" Encourage your child to tell you or the authorities in the situation any kind of inappropriate behavior. Help your child understand what's not appropriate with this perspective—If Mom and Dad wouldn't treat someone that way, no one else is allowed to treat you that way either. It's never okay.
These kinds of conversations are not easy. But having the conversation on sexual harassment in a calm, matter-of-fact way shows your kids they can come to you with questions and concerns. These kinds of conversations will help keep your kids safe.
No parent wants to imagine their child will ever be in a position to need this information. Unfortunately, at some time in their life they most likely will. Equipping our kids to recognize inappropriate, if not potentially dangerous, behavior and how to respond may be the thing that keeps them safe.
Brenda Garrison is a speaker and author of four books including "Love No Matter What: When Your Kids Make Decisions You Don't Agree With", "Princess Unaware: Finding the Fabulous in Every Day", and "Queen Mom: A Royal Plan for Restoring Order in Your Home." She has spoken to audiences in Eastern Asia and throughout the United States. Brenda has been a guest on "Family Life Today", "Focus on the Family" and Moody Radio's "Midday Connection" with Anita Lustrea.
Brenda and her husband, Gene, have three grown daughters, three son-in-laws, and one amazing grandson. They live near Metamora, IL.