Helping Children Make Sense of the Talk about Sexual Harassment

The very public conversation we’re having right now about things that until recently have been kept secret, offers us a valuable opportunity to begin taking steps toward a lasting cultural shift -toward better relationships and equity in the workplace and beyond. It also provides a most teachable moment for critical lessons about friendships and healthy relationships of all kinds.

While adults are sorting out the blame, and finding their voices through the safety of community, we can help our children make sense of the emotions they are noticing in the adults around them and open up valuable discussions. It is a great opportunity to reinforce the foundational concept of body rights- that each of us gets to decide who touches our body, that no one can touch our bodies, most especially our private areas, without our permission.

Let’s take the initiative to talk with children about how we treat one another with respect, by listening and responding positively when someone tells us what they need, and how we can communicate our own boundaries. As simple as they seem, these lessons, when implemented in the home and at school, empower the child to expect respect in their relationships. Holding such expectations can be protective while the child is young, and can serve as a valuable guideline when they move into adolescence and begin to date.

We want our children to know they own the rights to their body, that others are expected to respect their boundaries, and how to express their need for body space. This public discourse going on around them is about just that. It is not ok, it is hurtful and wrong, to ignore another’s boundaries and to touch without permission. Simple, and so important.

Two notes of caution…

First, in all the fervor surrounding us right now, let’s be careful to separate children’s developmentally appropriate questions and play from the misbehavior and hurtful behavior of some adults. Remember that young children are alive with curiosity about bodies, how they are the same and different, and where babies come from. It is all a part of their wonder of how things work in the world and should be welcomed. Young children’s talk and exploratory behavior must not to be confused with the abusive behavior of some adults that we are discussing and reacting to at this moment.

And second, let’s be sure that from adult conversations and reactions to the daily news the children are not absorbing generalized negative messages about boys and men. Our boys are capable of great compassion and kindness, which flourishes when they experience our expectations and support for demonstrating empathy and respect. In years past, many boys and men were taught to be unmoved by others’ expressions of boundaries, and to go after what they wanted at all costs. These lessons were taught through sports and combat. Athletic, business, and political figures that were ruthless were presented as role models and spoken of as successful. Strength was associated with a take-all attitude. No longer. Associating strength with empathy and compassion, and success with taking action that promotes social justice and the well being of others is the new model. Let’s be sure we are speaking of boys and men in those terms, especially as the conversations about sexual harassment and misconduct surround them.

We are experiencing a radical shift in our culture, and one that will benefit us all if, from the drama of the moment, we encourage mutual respect and kindness.