“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. But like other unfortunate events you’ve had to explain far before your kid was ready, the news — especially bad news — has a way of seeping into their world. And now you’re stuck: 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.