Sexual Harassment or Child’s Play?

by *clairity*

In the 6th grade there was this boy who took it upon himself to test my boundaries. Nearly every afternoon, as the bell rung, I would find myself running for the divider doors in a sprint for home. Not being that fastest of runners, I would never fail to miss the ass slap and catcalling from him and many of my classmates. What could be argued as something as simple as boy-likes-girl or boy-teases-girl was nothing of the sort to me. In contrast, the daily barrage of bullying made me feel disempowered and embarrassed.

Eventually, I told my mother who in turn spoke with the school principal. His reply was simply “boys will be boys” with little else but a reminder of adolescent patterns.  Nothing was said or done. Luckily for me my mother was never one to keep her mouth shut.  She decided to speak directly with the boy’s mother and have a few words about what she deemed appropriate. I can’t tell you what his mother said or didn’t say to him, only that when I got to school on Monday everyone called me a snitch and I became the current target for ridicule. The girls were especially harsh, annoyed at the ‘attention’ I was receiving from the boys.

I’ve spoken with people over the years that argue that we, as advocates, take the issue of sexual harassment and bullying too far. They cite that such zero tolerance rules and behavioral guidelines will encourage children to act out more outside of the classroom.  Or that it creates little room for experimentation with the opposite sex.  But how often do we, as a community, communicate with our children and young adults to discuss issues of gender and personal boundaries?

I think that by setting rules and examples for respect, we allow these same youth to live more freely without fear of harm from their peers. I believe that a girl should be able to go to school without worrying about whether or not she will have to defend her body against unsolicited contact or that boys can walk down a hall without being thrown up against a locker simply because they don’t fit into some ridiculous social standard. If a behavior is unwanted or unwelcome, it is unacceptable in my book.

Admittedly, children have a natural curiosity toward the opposite sex. Hugging, fondling and kissing are examples of exploratory contact that, when paired with an unwanted recipient, can create problems. Simply because such acts of exploration are deemed “normal” doesn’t constitue a right to cross personal boundaries. Acts once seen as innocent rights of passage can very easily grow into more aggressive acts of violence if they are not resolved in early stages of development. For those of you who still view acts by children as child’s play I have 6 words for you: Kids grow up and become adults.

But don’t just take it from me: A survey conducted by the AAUW (2002) on 2064 students in 8th through 11th grade indicated that 83% of girls and 79% of boys have been sexually harassed. Not surprisingly, in the same survey 42% of school employees admitted to being harassed by each other.

In education, many seasoned professionals have met the issue of sexual harassment with a resistance to change.  My elementary school principal being a perfect example. Talk to your kids. Talk to your school administrators. Learn more about the policies and follow-through for sexual harassment and bullying in your communities.  You can be the impetus to get your school system to wake up and begin to take harrassment and bullying seriously.  In the process, maybe boys will be boys and girls will be girls by showing respect for the humanity in each other.

For more information on sexual harassment in schools, check out this link: http://tinyurl.com/mqr7sd

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Talking To Children About Their Bodies And Abuse

When it comes to talking to children about abuse, it’s safe to say that most parents have a hard time starting the conversation. I’ve received emails from people who aren’t sure how to introduce the topic of private parts in general, let alone the topic of abuse and what that looks like. Admittedly, talking to your child about their body is a delicate task. However, without open and honest dialogue and clear definitions, we can’t expect children to protect themselves if these conversations have never taken place.

When talking to children about their bodies, I think it’s really important for parents to outline what they want to cover and terms that they will use to talk about body parts. Personally, I feel that body parts should be termed, as they would be at the doctor’s office. Cutesy terms, or “comfortable names” can sometimes cause confusion in children, as well as embarrassment about their bodies. Children needs to know the technical terms for their parts and that there is nothing dirty or shameful about them. In creating a safe and honest starting point, communication can become easier and gives children the respect they deserve regarding their bodies.

I was taught that private parts are considered that which is covered by a bathing suit or undergarments. Picturing this and explaining it will allow a clear picture for children. Any area that is not visible is private and is “off limits” to anyone else. Children should have a clear understanding that they have the right to voice their opinions and ask questions when it comes to their body. People such as healthcare providers who may need to assist during medical visits and exams, but children should still be able to voice any concerns they may have, just as you or I would.

Role-play and other games can be a good way to create scenarios with children that allow them to ask questions and think about things they may say in circumstances where they are uncomfortable. Additionally, the use of dolls with removable clothing can be a good tool for parents and caregivers to talk about body parts and inappropriate touching.

You don’t have to go it alone. Feel free to use literature and sites already in place as aids for discussion. You know your children better than anyone. Some children respond better to dialogue and others are more visual learners. Figure out what works best for the both of you.

Remember to relax. Children are like sponges and will often react to your reactions. If you are nervous or uncomfortable, they will see that and find it more difficult to ask questions. Take your time and leave the topic open for discussion down the line. Casual check-ins can also be helpful as they allow for further discussion and more practice for you. You never know what additional topics may come up, simply because you created a safe place for them.

Lastly, talk to other parents and see if they are talking to their kids. You may find that you are not alone in your fears and anxiety surrounding the topic. By talking with others, you may learn other fun ways to talk to your kids or help others to do the same.

Remember, we are all responsible for creating a safe community. Thanks for doing your part.