Health Team

How to talk to kids about sexual harassment

I never imagined I'd be spending so much time talking to my girls, ages 10 and 11, about sexual harassment.

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Kelly Wallace (CNN)
(CNN) — I never imagined I'd be spending so much time talking to my girls, ages 10 and 11, about sexual harassment.

After the news broke early Wednesday that Matt Lauer, now the former host of the "Today" show, was fired for what NBC called "inappropriate sexual behavior," I found myself starting the morning with yet another conversation about a famous person accused of acting inappropriately with women.

"The world is going to be a better place when you guys arrive in the workplace, and that's a good thing," I told them. With my older daughter, I talked about power and how a man who is more powerful in an organization could use that power to take advantage of women.

This is so much more than I ever learned at their age, but in my heart, I know these are teachable moments, which will benefit them in the years to come.

In conversations over email with parents across the country, it's clear I'm not alone in talking to young kids about a topic as charged as sexual harassment.

"For us, what happened with Matt Lauer is just another talking point in an ongoing conversation," said Avital Norman Nathman, a mother of an 11-year-old boy and author of the anthology "The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality."

Since her son was a toddler, she and her husband have been having age-appropriate conversations about consent and his control over his own body. Now that he's a tween, those conversations tend to happen more and more in relation to what's happening in the news, said Norman Nathman, who is also an editor of the online community GrokNation, founded by actress and mother Mayim Bialik.

"While I hate that there are so many women being harassed, each time a story comes out, it's just one more example to point to and show my son that it doesn't matter who you are and what power you possess, harassment as well as taking advantage of anyone in the workplace is never acceptable," she said via email. "I feel that so many young kids know better than these men who have shown propensity for these things and it's absolutely shameful!"

Lauren Smith Brody, author of "The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Success, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby," said she hasn't made a point of talking to her young boys specifically about sexual harassment but has started to weave in messages about the importance of consent and protecting their own bodies.

For instance, if one of the boys happens to hit the other, she's started to tell them "you hit your brother? No, we do not hit, ever, and by the way, actually we don't touch another person's body without permission, period, ever." She has tried to reiterate the message about sexism in the workplace as well and believes some of the messaging is starting to rub off.

During recent parent-teacher conferences for her third-grader, his teachers relayed a story about how they read a book about women's suffrage. Her son "raised his hand to comment about how even though that was a long time ago, there are lots of ways things still aren't fair and then gave an impassioned description of the wage gap," said Brody, who consults with companies to improve workplace culture for new parents. "Best conference ever."

Debbie Greene, who has two grown children, said this is a great time to have conversations that teach children how to treat another person and to teach them what you, as a parent, consider morally right and wrong.

"It can be very uncomfortable, especially when it is all they see on the TV," said Greene, who has a blog, Through Debbie's Eyes. She knows that firsthand, noting how she had to explain oral sex to her then-11-year-old daughter because of the allegations involving then-President Bill Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Tricia Ferrara, a licensed professional counselor and author of "Parenting 2.0," said ‎parents can and should be teaching their children about boundaries and power.

"From day one with kids, we need to be reinforcing boundaries within relationships -- intimate, professional and personal -- and that power is not about dominating another person or threatening them for personal gain," she wrote in an email. "These conversations are more critically necessary in a day and age where technology amplifies the likelihood of boundary violations and harassment."

Ferrara likes to always say that ‎"it's not the talk -- it's the walk with your child." A child raised in an environment where boundaries are in place and power is used "constructively and functionally" is more likely to know that sexual harassment is a violation when they encounter it and to speak up about it.

She also said a harassment incident doesn't have to be what starts the conversation. "I'm always asking my own kids and the kids that I treat: 'How are the boys treating you? How are the boys treating your friends? How are the girls treating you? How are the girls treating your friends?' " said Ferrara, a mother of two.

"Let your kids give insight on what's happening, and why they think it's happening. This allows them to articulate their posture on things -- whether it be having a second cookie after dinner or something more serious. They need practice at articulating how they feel from an early age."

Janeane Davis, a mother of four, said she has talked with her children about how they have "a right to keep others from sexually harassing and assaulting them" since they were small children. The message has always been that "no one, not their parents, friends, or doctors" can touch them without their permission.

"I started when they were about 3 and told them, 'If Mommy touches your personals without permission, punch me in the eye and then go tell Daddy on me,' " said Davis, founder of the blog Janeane's World, who has 10-year-old twins, a 14-year-old and a 21-year-old in college. "I told them the same thing about Daddy. I figured if they knew they had permission to punch a parent in the eye for inappropriate touching and that a parent could get in trouble for it, they would feel free to push anyone aside and not fear a penalty."

Her children, she said, think that people "shouldn't touch or say inappropriate things and it is good that people 'get in trouble' for it."

Jim Higley, a father of three, parenting advocate and author, said the importance of this conversation isn't limited to younger children.

He was at a local bar with his sons, ages 21 and 28, last week as they visited his childhood hometown of Fremont, Nebraska, for the Thanksgiving holiday.

"My conversation with them started, 'Guys, I need to ask you both something because it's been on my mind a lot lately. I'm asking as my sons and as the brothers to your sister: Have I done my job in teaching you and modeling for you what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in terms of how you should always treat a woman in every aspect of your life?' "

Higley, author of "Bobblehead Dad: 25 Life Lessons I Forgot I Knew" and chief brand officer for Camp Kesem, a camp for children whose parents had been diagnosed with cancer or died from the disease, said it wasn't the conversation his children were expecting as they started their holiday break. "But given the number of stories emerging and still feeling the obligation to teach my children well, I'm glad we had spoken about the topic," he said via email.

His sons initially thought he was raising the topic out of concern for their sister and the possibility that she might have been victimized in some way, Higley said. "I found that interesting (and confirming) that they first put the subject through the filter of their sister's safety, someone they love more than anything," he added.

Once his sons understood that the focus of the conversation was on making sure that Higley had taught them and modeled for them how a man should treat others, whether male or female, they definitely "took it seriously" and assured him that his lessons "registered loud and clear," Higley said.

The "steady beat of stories" alleging harassment, abuse and inappropriate behavior is "gut-wrenching," he said. "But it's forcing all of us, even parents of older children, to pause, reflect and readdress this critically important topic, regardless of their age."

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