How Old Should My Child Be Before I Start Teaching Him/Her About Rape?
I’ve seen variations of this question come up in the wake of Steubenville. I’ve said several times lately that it’s important to educate boys and men about rape, because we do a piss-poor job of it. We do teach girls and women, but we present a very slanted, one-sided, and often harmful picture of what rape is and who’s responsible. We need to do better.
So how old should your child be for you to start teaching them about rape?
I don’t understand the question. How old should they be before you start teaching them language? Before you teach them about love and respect?
How long should I wait to start teaching my son that women are people?
I haven’t sat down with my eight-year-old son to discuss the horrifying details of what Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond did to their victim and why it was wrong, nor have we talked about the witnesses and everyone who tried to ignore or cover up the crime.
On the other hand, my son struggles with awareness of personal space. For years, we’ve been working to teach him that he can’t touch other people without their permission. That lesson can begin as soon as they’re old enough to comprehend it.
I’ve tried to teach both of my children that they have the right to control their own bodies. As my daughter approaches her teenage years, she doesn’t always want hugs from me, and that stings. But I’ve tried not to push the issue. I want both of my children to understand that not even their parents have the right to hug or kiss them without their consent.
How old does my son need to be to learn about bullying, and that when he sees someone being hurt, he can go and get help?
How old do kids need to be to learn that the word “No” means no, and that whining and wheedling and arguing with Mom and Dad isn’t a good way to get what you want?
There are twisted people out there who will molest children of all ages. How long should we wait before teaching our kids that they can say no, that it’s not okay for anyone to do this to them, and they should tell us if something happens? That if they see a grown-up or another kid doing something that seems wrong, they should tell.
How long should I wait to start modeling a loving, respectful relationship with my partner?
I think a lot of us underestimate how much our kids pick up. I certainly wasn’t expecting my son to ask about sex as early as he did, but I did my best to answer honestly. (I’ll admit to being both entertained and pleased when he made a face and said, “Gross!”) I suspect there are an awful lot of conversations that, if we wait until we’re comfortable and think our kids are ready, we’ll have missed the boat.
Rape is one of the most common violent crimes out there. It comes up in the news and in movies and TV and video games and books… There are countless opportunities to start that conversation with your children. To find out what they understand and what they’re confused about. To clarify misunderstandings and provide facts to dispel the various myths.
In my opinion, it’s never too early to start teaching your child about rape. It’s a conversation that will evolve over time as their understanding develops and their social life becomes more complex and confusing, but it’s a conversation that needs to begin early, and to continue. It’s a conversation we have to have with our sons, not just with our daughters. It’s a conversation both parents should be involved with, when possible.
It’s not a conversation most of us particularly want to have. But we’re parents. This is our job.
Related links (standard warning about not reading the comments applies here):
March 21, 2013 @ 12:09 pm
I think the hidden question here is “When do I teach my children that the world is a horrible place?” I wrestled with this when the videos of Steubenville appeared on social media. Do I sit down with my 13-year-old daughter and show her? Do I let her see that there are boys/men out there for whom she is nothing but a piece of meat? Honestly, I railed against that. Why do I have to be the one to teach her that the world has these monsters? Why do I have to be one to show her that her world is not safe? Because as her parent I have the awful, hard work of teaching her that the monsters she thought were in her closet and under her bed have nothing on the the monsters in the real world. Note: I did not show her these videos. I did, however, sit down and talk to her again about safety, about being aware of her own safety and that of her friends. I have not yet ruled it out but I just can’t bring myself to let her watch this monster movie.
March 21, 2013 @ 12:27 pm
I think the question isn’t so much when do we start the process as much as “when do we accelerate it?” When do we make the somewhat vague lessons more direct? When does the word rape come into play?
Like you, I’ve worked with my kids on the general issues since they were old enough to understand the words. What I’m struggling with is when to broach the specifics. My son is 11. Yes, he’s hit puberty. Yes, he’s had sex ed in school. No, he doesn’t seem to really get it yet. So, I feel like it’s not time for him yet. My daughter is 8 and still working on personal space.
That’s where I have difficulty–figuring out when to shatter the illusion that this is some vague threat out there. Figuring out when to tell them it happened to me.
My mother kind of terrorized me with rape stories when I was growing up, and it wasn’t protection. It only made me feel like I wasn’t safe anywhere. I started trying to believe I could be safe with friends, but I wasn’t and I paid the price.
I don’t want to do that to my kids–make them petrified of the world–but I don’t want them blind either. That’s my struggle, finding balance in a horribly unbalanced world.
Goddess of Java
March 21, 2013 @ 12:37 pm
@Carrie I’m the author of one of the consent pieces linked to. I did NOT show my son that video, and possibly it was moral cowardice, but I couldn’t stomach watching it myself.
I’m not sure that video would do much to make her safer. Scare tactics don’t tend to promote intelligent choices the way honest and consistent cool-headed conversation can. At least, I found that as a teen scare tactics made me distrustful of whoever was giving the message. All people respond differently, I suppose.
Sara A. Mueller
March 21, 2013 @ 12:40 pm
As usual, Jim, your post is outstanding. It’s never too early to model behavior to our children.
I want to respectfully suggest one thing – The conversation we need to have with our sons isn’t that no means no. It’s that she/he HAS TO SAY YES. There’s no room for weaseling or rationalizing.
For a strong post that was sent to me this morning following my making the above comment – http://accidentaldevotional.com/2013/03/19/the-day-i-taught-how-not-to-rape/
Daniel D. Webb
March 21, 2013 @ 12:47 pm
“I want to respectfully suggest one thing – The conversation we need to have with our sons isn’t that no means no. It’s that she/he HAS TO SAY YES. There’s no room for weaseling or rationalizing.”
A most excellent point, quoted for importance. I think this lesson alone would go a long way toward healing the sexual wounds that society keeps passing on to each new generation.
March 21, 2013 @ 12:56 pm
As a fantasy writer, you have read fairy stories, and you’ve built one series on an unpleasant version of one of them. Who were these stories told to initially, and at what age?
So, yeah. Start teaching them early. Don’t sugar coat it and don’t drench it in blood, just put it out there as a fact of life like “some dogs don’t want to be petted” and “Look both ways before stepping off the curb.”
Also, waiting until 13 to teach a girl about rape? Bad idea, in my opinion. Girls mature before boys, and you did note the “my son 11. Yes, he’s hit puberty. Yes, he’s had sex ed in school. No, he doesn’t seem to really get it yet.” right?
Chances are that at 13, she’s read something that involves rape already, and may have very murky ideas that are wearing grooves in her mind NOW. Get some straight line, no punches pulled, strong woman tracks laid in to replace those. Start teaching her it could happen to her, and that if it does, she didn’t invite it, she’s not at fault, and she should prosecute the hell out of whoever tries/achieves it.
And teach your sons the same things, for heaven’s sake! How many boys have turned into rapists because they were molested themselves? And felt guilty, and at fault? How many crimes have been committed and lives ruined because “that doesn’t happen to boys”?
You know that British laws against male homosexuality were put in place during Queen Victoria’s reign, but not against female homosexuality because of her belief that women didn’t do that? So yeah.
You ALSO need to make sure that the kids are prepared against same sex molestation, especially if you think they may be gay or bi-sexual. Just because they’re attracted by their own/both sexes, that doesn’t mean they should be sex objects to either or both!
March 21, 2013 @ 1:29 pm
It’s never too early, as you say, to model healthy relationships, to teach responsibility for choices and one’s own body, to learn respect and to listen. These are the basis for rape prevention.
As for revealing the ugliness of what happens in the world? That depends on you and your own child. When my oldest was 6, we were playing at a park that had a monument to a young girl who had been abducted. He asked me to read the plaque and I told him some part of the truth, but not all. And even that had been too much for him. It terrified him and I realized that I had made the wrong choice.
March 21, 2013 @ 2:31 pm
Fear is definitely not part of this curriculum. It may work temporarily, but it’s really at cross-purposes with one’s intention in this case. Human beings are wired for cooperation, but fear short-circuits the wiring.
March 21, 2013 @ 3:00 pm
@Goddess – Part of me felt that my decision to not show her was cowardice as well, but I also was afraid that I would be creating, in that moment, a woman who lived in fear all the time.
@HurogGirl – If you notice I used the word again when I mentioned talking to her about safety. We have talked about boundaries. We have talked about rape. We have talked about saying no when you do not want to be touched and yes when you do, but those videos bring it all crashing down in a way that is impossible for a 13 year girl who lives with her head in the clouds and her heart in her hands to ignore. That was why I wrestled with showing them to her. Not because it would be her first introduction to the topic, but because it might be the one that keeps her safe.
These are the conversation which we need to have. We need to have them with each other and with our children. We need to talk about it and then talk about it again and again and again. I respect the parents who decided to show those films to their kids and those who did not. The only parents I do not respect are the one who chose to ignore it and pretend that it will never happen to their children.
March 21, 2013 @ 4:37 pm
This letter was linked to on John Scalzi’s site and I thought it was a really nice example of one woman’s approach to teaching her sons.
**Trigger Warning for CSA**
I also really appreciate that I’m seeing articles about letting children set their own boundaries, even with relatives. I’m 30 and grew up with “Stranger Danger”, but was raped by my best friend’s dad in elementary school. He was supposed to be safe and I didn’t want to be rude when he started crossing boundaries. Once you learn that you can’t say no to one thing, that pleasing people is more important than your own feelings, it becomes ingrained. Even as an adult I struggle with balancing my personal comfort with being polite.
As for when to introduce these ideas, I think people underestimate what kids already know about. By the time I was a junior in high-school I knew three girls and a guy who had been assaulted, most before they were 14, in social settings by their peers because “drunk doesn’t equal consent” just isn’t a lesson we’re teaching. If you know what sex is, you are old enough to understand that there is a difference between yes and no.
March 21, 2013 @ 5:55 pm
I think it’s a continuum and I struggle with Steubenville a little bit in terms of how much to say and when. (Full disclosure – I’ve got a migraine today and I think I may meander a bit – apologies in advance).
I was a rape counselor for years, so I’ve never taken the approach with my kids that the world’s a completely safe place. I don’t want to terrorize them, but I may err on the side that law enforcement parents do. There are dangers out there. On the other hand, I also encourage them to try things on their own, and be strong individuals. Make mistakes, get up and keep going.
My son is 7 and my daughter is 9. Like Jim’s son, I was a little surprised how early the sex questions came up but I answer them as honestly as I can. The schools have started early, and we as parents have always reinforced, what is appropriate touching from peers or older children or adults. How to say “no” and what to do when you hear it! For a 7 year old (or 9 year old) chasing a sibling who’s screaming “no” about the worm down the shirt, stopping as soon as you hear “no” is hard, but we started as soon as they started talking (or sooner) and we’re still practicing. They need lots of practice. 🙂
They don’t understand how this all translates yet into “sex” and “rape” and all the things we pack into those words, so we’ll keep working on the pieces that we can work on.
I wasn’t sure how to talk to them about Sandy Hook either, but in the end, I did. Because it could happen to them, and they were going to hear about it, and I wanted to be sure that I guided that conversation and gave them some help. And that my children knew they could come to me with questions.
So I guess I’ll figure out how to have this conversation too. I want them to be safe and caring. This is another step. Maybe after the migraine dies down a bit though.
Thanks for the conversation Jim and team.
Jim C. Hines
March 22, 2013 @ 7:46 am
Thank you, Dasha. I’ve updated the post to include that link.
March 22, 2013 @ 8:32 am
Thanks for the link and for discussing this issue.
March 23, 2013 @ 11:49 am
I’m really struggling with several of the comments here. I understand the desire to keep your children safe, and the question of what is or as not an age-appropriate teaching tool.
What I struggle with is the idea that the videos and pictures that are part of the public record after Steubenville are appropriate teaching tools for anyone. At the center of these images is a young woman who didn’t concent to the videos and pictures, let alone to what the videos and pictures show.
If we use the images that helped convict Jane Doe’s rapists as a teaching tool for our own children, aren’t we also teaching our kids that once it’s out on social media / in the news, you can become meme and not a person, and there’s nothing you can do about it? Isn’t that part of the problem we’re trying to fix in the first place?
March 23, 2013 @ 11:55 am
And I’ve started off with HTML fail, sorry. That was supposed to be a single italic clause, not the whole rest of the comment.
Jim C. Hines
March 23, 2013 @ 12:18 pm
No problem. Fixed now.
March 23, 2013 @ 12:21 pm
@Archane – I think that is an excellent point. But it is also I point I have been driving home with my children. That with the ever present cellphone camera and video there is no private in public spaces any more. That anything you do or say can be recorded without your permission and once that happens you do lose all control of it. So yes that would be another dilemma of showing those videos but perhaps another important conversation as well.
Also, I would hope that anyone who did show those videos, as I mentioned I decided against it after a long thoughtful wrestle with many of the implications, would emphasis Jane’s humanity and make sure that it was handled in a way to ensure this was addressed.
Maybe I am naive.
March 24, 2013 @ 8:00 am
I coparent my godson.
I told him about Steubenville.
No squicky biological details were involved.
I told him that two big, strong boys had done mean things to a girl when she was drunk (he knows what “drunk” is).
I told him that they had touched her in private places when she wasn’t even awake or able to let them know how she felt about it.
I told him that they’d taken pictures of her and sent them to friends, pictures that would embarrass her.
And I told him that people had watched them doing mean things, and done nothing about it.
I told him that the whole thing greatly upset me, but that the two boys were going to jail for a long time, which is what happens when you touch people in their private places without them clearly wanting you to.
I told him that people who do those things are being weak inside, even if their arms and legs are strong.
And I told him that he always had to be strong inside, and to do the right thing, whether his arms and legs were strong or not.
Teaching Kids About Sex and Consent
March 27, 2013 @ 11:54 am
March 31, 2013 @ 12:28 am
I’ve lately struggled with this in a way most could never imagine. My husband is in prison for raping me. My story has made national and international headlines due to the dramatic details of my story, and the fact that the Family Court Judge ordered me to pay my convicted rapist spousal support and his legal fees. This resulted in me getting the law changed in CA last year (AB1522). Even though I’ve not yet told my two sons that my husband raped me, they witnessed him choking me and know he’s in prison for hurting me badly. The problem is that it’s been 5 yrs, and the boys have heard things. They’ve heard the word “rape”, though they know not what it is. I know when they learn what rape is, they will put it all together. We’ve all been through so much, but that’s also given them a strength. Would I be completely derelict to educate them about this given how close to home it hits?
Jim C. Hines
March 31, 2013 @ 11:45 am
I wish I had an easy answer for this one. From what you’ve said, it sounds like the boys will eventually piece together what your husband did to you.
I’m not trying to dodge the question, but have you and/or the kids talked to a counselor or therapist about all of this? I’ve been seeing someone for close to a year now about depression, and I could see this being a good question to bring up with them, both exploring if and when and how to talk to the kids about rape, and possibly even doing it in that environment where there’s someone else who can help to facilitate things.
It sounds like you know they’re going to learn most of this eventually; the question is when and how, and from whom.
April 2, 2013 @ 11:48 pm
I learned about it when I was four years old. Why? Because that’s when it happened to me. At that point, I knew what it was. I’m not sure if my parents came out and talked to me about it, or if they had handed me a book on privacy of the body and had me read, but I knew what was happening to me waas wrong.
I remember my brother was six when they read the same book to him. It was a very well done book. It made sure to emphasize that it’s not a lack of no you need, but a yes.
I think rape should be taught when boundaries are taught. No always means no, but you can’t take a lack of no for a yes. It’s something that is taught in basic child rearing, because those basics are applied to everything. And not just boundaries, but why you shouldn’t seek control, and why you should learn to respect others. It comes to raising your children well, with the idea that all people are equal and deserve basic respect.
“Speak”ing Up | ayvalentine.com
April 22, 2013 @ 12:59 pm
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