Talking to Children About Sexual Misconduct

By: Neil Mufson
Mr. Mufson offers practical advice for talking to children about this sensitive topic.
With all the overdue attention being given to the issue of sexual harassment and abuse of power, the Association of Independent Maryland Schools (AIMS) made available for its members the outstanding piece that appears below, courtesy of its author, Adriana Murphy, the Middle School Head at Friends Community School in College Park. Even if you have very young children, the article addresses early attitudes that are very important to instill within our children. I hope you find it useful as you integrate this difficult topic into your family’s conversations.

3 Tips to Help Parents Talk to Their Children about Sexual Misconduct
By Adriana Murphy, Middle School Head at Friends Community School

As the news puts a spotlight on sexual misconduct, particularly among men in positions of power, educators and parents are left with how to handle this topic with children. Unlike mass shootings or natural disasters where the likelihood of a personal encounter is relatively low, most sexual harassment and assault is conducted by someone familiar. How then, do we talk to our children and ensure they have the tools to say something if they experience or witness sexual harassment or assault? If you, like many parents across the country right now, are wondering what to say or do, perhaps you’ll find the following helpful.

1. Define the terms. Richard Weissbourd, author and director of the Making Caring Common Project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, notes that it’s important to clearly define sexual harassment and degradation for teens and young adults because many of them do not know the range of behaviors that comprise misogyny and sexual harassment.
What might this look like?
  1. Begin by asking your child what he/she already knows and to provide you with examples.
  2. Clarify any misunderstandings.
  3. Talk about the many ways sexual harassment manifests, including the following:
  • Verbal harassment, including words like b****h, ho, comments, rumors, catcalls or jokes
  • Cyber harassment – posts on social media, text messaging and email
  • Physical harassment, such as unwanted touching or kissing
  • Nonverbal harassment, including gestures, writing sexually explicit things about someone
  • Unwanted behavior, such as repeatedly asking someone on a date when they’ve said no, following or stalking
2. Practice setting and adhering to boundaries. Often kids are programmed to follow rules, even if the rules make them uncomfortable. They need help identifying appropriate boundaries and understanding why crossing boundaries is disrespectful, a form of harassment, and can even lead to people getting hurt. Listening when others say “No” or “Stop” is critical to respecting boundaries.

What might this look like?
  1. Let kids know that other people shouldn’t touch their bodies and that some parts of their bodies are private.
  2. Talk about how you’ll handle gatherings and respect a child’s wishes to not hug anyone who makes them uncomfortable.
  3. Remind kids that sometimes what is fun for them, may not be fun to someone else. For example, if your child likes to jump on other kids without their permission or without checking that their friends are ready, the contact could be unwanted.
  4. Discuss reciprocity of rules: Just as your child wants others to respect their wishes when they say “No” or “Stop”, other people want the same, too.

3. Model standing up. Sadly, there is no shortage of opportunities to stand up against harassment. In the moment, kids and adults, often lack the words to say. Running through scenarios ahead of time and practicing what your child could say or do will best prepare them should they find themselves being harassed or demeaned by gender-based slurs. Clarify upstanding and snitching. Explain that perpetrators can turn on upstanders. The women who came forward about being harassed showed courage and stood up against what was wrong.

What might this look like?

  1. Ask if your child has ever been harassed or demeaned with sexualized words and how they’ve responded.
  2. If your child hasn’t had any experiences, ask them what they would do and whether it differs from what they should do.
  3. Discuss what it would take to get from should to would and what the pros and cons of their strategies are. For example, would they feel comfortable confronting the harasser? Telling a teacher?
  4. Intervene when you hear gender-based slurs being used among peers, on TV, in music.
Bottom line? Be clear in language and boundaries, and seize opportunities to stand up against demeaning behavior. These conversations, albeit difficult, are part of raising informed and empowered children.


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