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How to talk to kids about sexual harassment

Recently, I was in a restaurant picking up dinner. A family with a teenage son and elementary-aged daughter were waiting in line in front of me. A TV was blaring, and the newscaster was discussing the details of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment case.

The parents in front of me watched as their children turned their attention to the screen, absorbing every picture, quote and nitty-gritty detail.

You could see the caring puzzlement in their eyes: Do we rush to change the channel? What do we say? What do we do?

As the anchor disclosed more details of Weinstein’s behaviors, the daughter looked up and said, “Daddy, what did this man do?” Their teenage son looked on.

If you are a parent, it is highly probable that you’ve turned on the TV or clicked on the radio at just the right time to hear another breaking news story about a person in power who used that power to hurt, disrespect or assault another person in a sexualized way. And most likely, as the news broke, your child or teen was listening, too.

As parents and adult allies in our community, we have an opportunity and important responsibility to talk with the young people in our lives about sexual harassment, including the wide range of disrespectful beliefs and behaviors it includes. But let’s be honest, sometimes we’re just not sure where to start.

In a recent study published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, professor Richard Weissbourd acknowledges this very real truth for parents, and offers six key tips to help adults talk with teens and children about sexual harassment and misogyny.

▪ Clearly define sexual harassment and degradation.

▪ Step in and stick with it.

▪ Teach your child to be a critical consumer of media and culture.

▪ Talk to you child about what they should do if they’re sexually harassed or degraded. Remember, it can happen to anyone, not just females.

▪ Encourage and expect upstanding. Respect is meant for everyone, all the time.

▪ Work to assure that young people have multiple sources of recognition and self-worth.

If these tips don’t help, consider breaking the silence by talking about the exact opposite of sexual harassment: healthy relationships.

What makes a relationship healthy? How do you know someone is a good friend? What does respect look like and sound like? If you overhear your child using derogatory and sexualized terms to describe others, genuinely ask, “Why is this a way you and your friends bond?”

No matter what you say, please know that any efforts you take to talk with your children about sexual harassment and healthy relationships can and will go a long way in helping to build safe communities and environments where all people are respected and cared for, and where sexual harassment has no place.

To read more about the six tips, read Weissbourd’s full article,“The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment” at mcc.gse.harvard.edu/thetalk.

Ruth Williamson is a prevention educator at Centre County Women’s Resource Center.

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