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How To Use This Wave Of Sexual Harassment Revelations To Teach Our Kids

Participants march against sexual assault and harassment at the #MeToo March in Los Angeles on Nov. 12. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Participants march against sexual assault and harassment at the #MeToo March in Los Angeles on Nov. 12. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

The Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in early October, and since then it’s been one appalling allegation of sexual harassment and assault after another. Which, speaking here as a parent, can make for some ticklish dinner table conversations with young people soon to be sent out themselves into the working world.

I've found myself longing for a way to prepare my children, to train them, wondering what could be done so that if they ever face workplace harassment or predation, they might be less likely to succumb or stay silent. And so that they can be aware enough to avoid ever harassing anyone themselves.

So I turned to the experts who have my gratitude for training my children for sexual life so far, through the school sex ed program Get Real, developed by the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. Among other tools, Get Real uses role-playing to help students get familiar with concepts like sexual consent and relationship respect.

The skills that Get Real teaches -- empathy, social awareness, self-awareness — also apply to preventing sexual harassment and assault, says Jennifer Slonaker, who led the program's creation.

I asked her how parents can use this current wave of scandals as teachable moments with our (older) children. Below, Slonaker lays out some sample snippets of possible conversations, and the parenting principles behind them:


Communication — early and often — about bodies, relationships, consent, sex and sexual assault allows parents to articulate our values and provide information. Showing our children that we are open to their questions and want to have conversations about these tough topics will make them feel more comfortable talking with us if they see or experience abuse.

So how do you address the complex issues raised by this wave of revelations 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? It’s not a onetime conversation.

Here are some examples of ways to start, drawing on a few of the recent stories:

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."


Parents? Have you been having any conversations like these, and any tips to offer?

Related:

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth blog.

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