Want to Help #MeToo? Here's What to Teach Your Boys

Want to Help #MeToo? Here's What to Teach Your Boys

Preventing sexual harassment and assault starts early and at home.

The #MeToo movement has given women the strength to come forward and speak about experiences of sexual harassment and assault. While listening to these stories, it's crucial to consider how to stop them from occurring in the first place. Part of that begins with teaching young boys about empathy, boundaries, consent and acceptable behavior—that they may play an important role in empowering women, and ultimately, preventing harm.

Whether you're a parent, guardian or other grown-up, here are some common-sense ideas about how to kick off the conversation.

Start young
Speaking about consent with boys should begin early. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), a non-profit organization largely focused on the prevention of sexual assault, first conversations can be as simple as teaching the proper names of body parts. Make it clear to children that no one should touch or ask to see those parts of their body. Explain that they may be examined by doctors, but parents should be present for any appointments.

It’s important for children to feel they have agency over their actions and bodies, as well. Explain they don’t need to give hugs or kisses, nor should they force others to hug them. Tell children they can always say no to any physical contact that makes them feel uncomfortable.

It's not too early to address aggressive speech with young boys, either. While they may not yet be exposed to conversations with sexual overtones, young kids will hear name-calling or teasing, and should be aware they're hurtful.

“Talk about how bullying can look a lot of different ways,” suggests Kelsey Torgerson, MSW, LCSW, specializing in early childhood stress at Compassionate Counseling St. Louis in Missouri. “Sometimes bullying is hitting and punching, but other types of bullying include hurting people's feelings using words on purpose.”

Let your children know teasing, or intending to hurt others, is never acceptable—and emphasize it's important to be kind and have empathy for kids being targeted.

Talk about respect, not just sex
As boys reach their adolescent and teen years, many parents focus on “the talk”—the big, heart-to-heart discussion about puberty and sex. However, it’s important to find opportunities to speak about consent, love and respect, as well. For example, teach boys how to identify verbal and nonverbal cues to find out if someone is uncomfortable. Help them identify actions that define a healthy relationship versus an unhealthy one.

Many of the questions boys have about sexual harassment may be sparked by events in the news or the experiences of characters on television shows. These can serve as jumping off points to speak about harassment and appropriate behavior. Be prepared to ask and answer questions, and consider bringing up personal experiences to show these situations can impact anyone.

If they ask about assault, let boys know fault should never be placed on victims. “Make sure to course correct if either your son or daughter starts talking about what the survivor of harassment should have done differently,” suggests Torgerson.

Fight back against locker room talk
As they grow older, boys will be exposed to sexist behavior and language from their peers, and maybe even other adults. They may also witness their friends verbally harassing others.

While we always want boys to intervene when these types of conversations start, they may be unsure of what to say or do. So, prepare them in advance. Brainstorm together about how to stand up for anyone being harassed, or how to confront someone engaged in inappropriate talk. It’s up to parents and guardians to identify what type of comments are inappropriate and to establish that is never okay to make demeaning remarks or use slurs against others.

Increasingly, this type of verbal harassment occurs on social media. This can embolden boys to make comments or requests that they wouldn’t normally make in person. Stress that respect extends to digital conversations. Monitor their online communication or create a contract about what type of behavior they are expected to follow on social media.

Keep the dialogue going
Don’t expect that one talk will cover everything boys need to know; the dialogue should continue and evolve as they grow. Speak honestly and truthfully, tailoring the conversation to their age and maturity level. If you're ever unsure of how to answer a question, explain that you will look into it and come back with more information.

“It's important to be comfortable with any difficult topic. If you're uncomfortable and unsure of what to say to your sons, your stress will get in the way of having an open conversation,” says Torgerson.

Finally, it’s up to parents, guardians and other adults to set a strong example for children about how to behave towards others. Discussions about respect and empathy sink in more when boys witness the adults they look up to practicing the lessons they preach. Even small actions, such as holding the door for another person, can send a visible message to a child to always act with kindness. By teaching boys early and talking often, we can help our next generation of young men protect and respect everyone.

Medically reviewed in February 2018.

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