Back to School in the #MeToo era: Sex Ed and Sexual Climate

Back to School in the #MeToo era

Well, the kids are back at school, and whether they’re just starting to read or learning the Pythagorean Theorem, they’re going to be learning something about sex.

Don’t look so surprised. Regardless of your children’s age, many of the behaviors they will learn or face as they navigate the jungle of the corridors and playground have their roots in sexual behavior both instinctive and learned. As parents you can help with each for the benefit of your children and everyone around them.

First, there’s sex education itself. Twenty-four states plus the District of Columbia including New Jersey, mandate some sort of sex education, but it’s up to the states to determine what to teach. Twenty-seven states, including both Pennsylvania and New Jersey require schools provide STD and HIV/AIDS education, and the school’s curriculum must be available to parents for review.

While  there are  highly regarded professional  standards  available to educators,  curricula as taught may not be medically accurate, may teach abstinence-only and only two states – California and Louisiana – specifically prohibit the teaching of religion as part of sex education. So, parents should be engaged enough to know what, if any, sex education curriculum is taught in their children’s schools.

Then there’s what I call the “sexual climate” of a school, how it feels to be in that specific building, among those specific faculty, staff and students.

Generally, scholars describe a healthy school climate as having 4 components:

  • A physical environment that is welcoming and conducive to learning
  • A social environment that promotes communication and interaction
  • An affective environment that promotes a sense of belonging and self-esteem for all; and
  • An academic environment that promotes learning and self-fulfillment

A healthy sexual climate in a school addresses these issues as they pertain to sexuality.   A school with a healthy sexual climate promotes tolerance and respect and responds’ quickly to real or perceived threats including rumor, innuendo and bullying. Responses by school personnel to teasing and touching offer teachable moments early in the year, and opportunities to show the consequences of ignoring rules as the school year progresses.  Little ones learn not to tease, and older ones learn that even high-status kids don’t get to grab anyone’s breasts or genitals.

Here’s where parents can play a most important role:  teaching children about empathy. It doesn’t always come naturally to a child, and in fact, it is developmentally normal for  young people to  see the world as revolving around him or herself. But a healthy regard for what other people are feeling will help   your child resist the impulse to snap a girl’s bra strap, tip over the books she’s carrying or call her names when she starts to develop physically. It will help them from shunning the unpopular student, or making fun of their looks, manners of speech or interests, or posting anything on-line without the expressed permission of the subject.

It’s too easy for parents write these behaviors off as “kids will be kids” or to recall one’s own childhood behavior. After all, you turned out all right, didn’t you? But if you look back, what did those inconsiderate and bullying actions mean to the boys and girls at whom they were directed?  How did you learn empathy, and how should your children learn? Does your child stop and think about how his or her actions or words will make the other person feel?

Living an empathic life takes a conscious effort for everyone, but one only has to look at how society is roiling over sexual abuse, sexual harassment and the decline in civil discourse to understand how important it is.

The highest standard for promoting sexual health and safety is for parents to send their children out in the world filled with age-appropriate, medically accurate information about sexuality, wrapped up in their  family’s values. If you haven’t had the conversation about empathy you haven’t finished the conversation about sex. Empathy is certainly a subtext of a great deal of what’s taught in school, but if your children are really going to learn this most important lesson you’ll have to start by teaching it at home.

 

 

Dr. Janet Rosenzweig is the Executive Director of  The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children  and the author of The Sex-Wise Parent  and   The Parent’s Guide to Talking About Sex: A Complete Guide to Raising (Sexually) Safe, Smart, and Healthy Children.  For more information, read her blog, follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter or contact DrRosenzweig@sexwiseparent.com to schedule a program for your school or community group

 

 

Conspiracies of silence endanger sexual health and safety

The news that more than 300 Pennsylvania priests may have sexually abused more than 1,000 identifiable children during the last 70 years is shocking for the enormity of the accusation, but by now there have been enough of these tragic accusations against so many of our institutions that parents should be neither unaware of the risks to their children nor unwilling to confront those risks before their own child might be abused.

The grand jury indictments accuse the Catholic Church of covering up the abuse with criminal conspiracies of silence. Healthy institutions – and the family is the most basic institution of our society — need to break the silence about sexual health and safety, and there is never a better time than the present to do that.

Let’s start with a few basic ideas:

  • Children should have medically accurate, age-appropriate facts about sexual anatomy and physiology. Little kids should know all the external parts; as kids age they need to know the internal parts and all kids need to know that sexual arousal is an autonomic reflex. Too many predators entrap kids by convincing a child they were not a victim because they became aroused. Parents can neutralize the pedophile’s devastating, all too-common tool with medically accurate information.
  • Parents can open a conversation by reminding children that many people will put their own interests above that of someone else. Children may have already experienced that by being bullied or lied to or experiencing someone taking something of theirs. Abusing someone sexually is but one of the many ways people put their own feelings above those of another, and it’s one that can leave most damaging scars. Especially if faith plays a role in your family, you will want to address the difference between a person who espouses or teaches the words of  your faith,  and the meaning of those words. Widespread allegations of abuse = can challenge the faith of both child and family, and this is a good chance to draw a defining line between the meaning of your religion and the actions of the accused priests and the people who protected them.
  • Focus on trust. Damage can cut the deepest when abuse is in the context of a trusted relationship. Pedophile priests are in our news now, but other trusted adults including physicians, educators, parental figures and coaches have been there too. Parents can support their children to trust their own instincts when something doesn’t seem right, and to trust that their parents will listen to them and support them when they share those concerns. I’ve heard stories from peers growing up in the 1960s whose parents smacked them for speaking ill of a priest when the child tried to tell about sexual abuse. I hope those days are long gone –children deserve better, and parents can do better.

Too many parents still feel uncomfortable talking to their children about sexuality, yet research shows that parents consistently underestimate the importance children place on their thoughts. Parents may feel as if they don’t know to what say, but other professionals and I can provide resources to help you. Information from the American Academy of Pediatrics, The Sex-Wise Parent books and website are but two of the places where you can find help. If you’re’ really uncomfortable, practice roleplaying with a friend, or ask your school or faith-based organization to schedule a parent workshop.

Our children deserve the very best from all the institutions designed to help bring them to healthy, productive adulthood. Parents can focus on their own children now, when headlines can be causing fear and confusion, but in the long term parents can focus on the policies, procedures and sexual climate  of the institutions that serve their children.

Support for your children’s sexual health and safety must start at home and spread out into the community. Use this current spate of tragic stories to ensure there is no conspiracy of silence around sex in your home.

 

Dr. Janet Rosenzweig is the Executive Director of  The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children  and the author of The Sex-Wise Parent  and   The Parent’s Guide to Talking About Sex: A Complete Guide to Raising (Sexually) Safe, Smart, and Healthy Children.  For more information, read her blog , follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter or contact DrRosenzweig@sexwiseparent.com to schedule a program for your school or community group

 

Helping kids understand the meaning of Halloween costumes

Helping kids understand the meaning of Halloween costumes

 

Parents are in the final throes of preparing for Halloween, buying candy, decorating their houses and in too many families fighting over costumes that make a parent cringe.

Whether the costume makes a politically-incorrect statement or projects an image you can’t stomach (Miley twerking, anyone?) Halloween can present some important teaching moments.  Even if you ultimately ban the costume with a strong “because I said so” you can get a few points across during the debate.

Girls especially are pressured into appearing sexual at young ages, exposed by the media to baby bikinis and padded bras for eight-year-olds. Boys may need  help understanding what is really conveyed by the tough-guy looks or dressing  as a character known for violence.  A common problem among latency aged, pre-sexual kids is that they may know that a certain type of look is equated with being attractive without understanding that it has a sexual  or dangerously violent connotation. When a nine-year-old girl chooses a Halloween costume with a decidedly “hooker-ish” look, a parent needs to supplement their “no” with a justification.   Explaining to kids that certain kinds of  clothes carry a certain kind of message (one that is not always appropriate for their age) is a good place to start. Consider using  a uniform as an example.   “When you wear shin guards, I know you’re getting ready to play soccer”.   You can then continue on and explain to a school-aged child that a particular look is seen by some people as a uniform to “kiss” or “flirt” or some other term in that will make a nine-year-old think, “Yuck.”

Older kids may think they know exactly the message they are conveying with their costume and are happy to do so.  In that case a Sex-Wise Parent makes it clear that “this is not a message we allow in our family.  It does not support your sexual health and safety, which is very important to me.”

This  is also a good time to remind our kids, particularly adolescents, that a persons attire NEVER is to be taken as an invitation for sexual contact.    If your teen reminds you that those two messages sound like they contradict each other  remind them that not everyone understands  or lives by the  latter point.

We must let our kids know that there are some rules we’ll bend on Halloween, like how much chocolate they can have in a single day, and other rules that are hard and fast.   They don’t get a day off from thinking about the messages they send  about their sexuality.

For more information, see The Sex-Wise Parent!

T-Ball and Sex-Wise Parenting?  YES!

T-Ball and Sex-Wise Parenting? YES!

Summer means sports and baseball gloves are being oiled up in homes round the country.  Thoughts are turning to runs, hits, errors, uniforms, caps and spikes.

And cups.   It’s standard practice for leagues to require boys to wear a hard protective cup over their genitals during practice and games.  One family I know had a golden teachable moment when their 5 year old wanted know why he had to wear a cup over his penis.  “I’m not going to pee during a ballgame!”

Some parents might have answered the “why” question with a simple “Because it’s the rules”, a close cousin to “Because I said so”.   These answers have a place when disciplining a child, but in this instance would only stifle curiosity and an opportunity to share values and facts.

It’s fairly typical for pre-school aged boys to think of their entire genitalia as their penis.  This boys parents explained to their son and his now-curious brother that the penis is the name for the skinny part in front that boys use to pee, but behind it the sac that holds the special parts that men have that makes their Daddy seeds. And those parts, (called ballies in some families, testes in others) would hurt A LOT if they accidently got hit with a baseball!  They grabbed their copy of The Sex-Wise Parent, turned to the line drawing of male anatomy on page 59 and gave both of their sons an age appropriate lesson in sexual health  and safety.  Because of T-ball!

These little boys learned the anatomy of their genitals and  that Daddies make seeds in their testicles and mommies make seeds in their ovaries.  They learned that we take care of our genitals and keep them healthy – a precursor to a condom discussion due in about 10 years!

And, they learned that they can talk to their parents about ANYTHING, including their genitals — an important protective factor in keeping pedophiles at bay.

Before long, sex-wise parents will see how spontaneous, frank discussions with children as issues come up render THE TALK unnecessary!  Get more information at www.SexWiseParent.com!

Honor the uncounted victims of sex abuse with action

Everyone knows someone whose life has been touched by sexual victimization. Look at the published numbers—different studies suggest 70,000 kids each year, others suggest 90,000 kids each year, some say one out of 4 kids; others, one out of 6. Regardless of the source, the number of affected children is huge. These findings have become the rallying cries of advocates, and many professionals remind us that these reports are only the tip of the iceberg.

Frankly, I can’t stand the statistics about child sexual abuse. Besides the obvious differences in definitions and counting methods that make statisticians cringe, statistics dehumanize the unbearable pain caused to children and those who love them. More meaningful than any statistic is the sad truth that almost everybody knows someone who was sexually abused—a sad friend remembered from childhood, a college friend who confided why they have lousy relationships, someone you dated, a friend of your child’s. Far from the statistics we find stories like Sugar Ray Leonard, who was sexually abused by a boxing coach, or  actor Todd Bridges, molested as a child  by a publicist. Maybe you shudder remembering the touchy-feely coach,  the school bus driver who  grabbed  kids  on their way off the bus, the “over-affectionate” step parent, aunt or uncle, or  the seductive baby-sitter who taught ‘grown up games’.

The vivid testimony offered by the indomitable victims in the Sandusky trial is causing long buried memories to surface for millions of people. Whether you’re chatting with a colleague over coffee, or a neighbor waiting at the school bus stop with you to pick up the kids, consider the fact that old, buried memories are surfacing for millions right now. We must be sensitive to their pain, and our own. If words fail you at thie sound of thier memories,  just listen with empathy, love and support.

Then, use your anger and rage to propel you into action to make your community one where this never happens again. To help get started, see http://bit.ly/LP4C4E.

Lesson from day 2 of the Sandusky trial: One victim wept, the other deadly calm

The most cunning predators choose a victim who can’t speak up.  The drug dealer robs a junkie who can’t call the cops; the hooker robs the john who doesn’t want to be caught. These scenarios describe victims who put themselves in precarious positions; they took a risk and  lost.  The only risk a child victim of a pedophile took was to accept the friendship of an adult and they find themselves  forced into a devastating silence that leaves scars as deep as the actual abuse.

The vastly different reaction of first two victims to testify the Sandusky trial show how individualized the effect of victimization can be. Fear, anger, and shame take their toll on developing psyches.  The horrifyingly confusing double messages about right and wrong wreak havoc on a budding personality.  Some victims bury their horror so deeply that internal walls come crumbling down when the secret is revealed; others act out in ways that we’ve come to recognize as cries for help.

The young men providing testimony are heroes.   They should be hailed as trailblazers, lighting the way for other victims to come forward and helping everyone to see the predators hiding in plain sight.     Lance Armstrong couldn’t have been thrilled at the thought of the entire world discussing his testicles;  he moved millions to action with his frank disclosure of testicular cancer.  We can and must show these brave young men taking the witness stand  the same admiration we show for celebrities who shed light on deadly diseases, paving the way for predators to be caught and other victims to rid themselves of the undeserved shame.

Mandatory Reporting….. Mandatory Prevention??

Penn State announced today  that they now require all employees to report suspected child abuse to state authorities.   Many advocates will express raging ambivalence that this is too little too late, and there is some truth to that.  But consider the fact that Pennsylvania laws specify one of the most limited groups of mandated reporters of suspected child abuse of any state in the country.  The only people required by Pennsylvania law to report  suspected child abuse are people who “in the course of their employment, occupation, or practice of their profession”,  come into contact with children; many states require anyone who knows or suspects abuse to contact authorities.    Very few institutions anywhere adopt policies that go beyond the state requirements; Penn State is certainly to be commended for doing that.

 As a prevention advocate I feel compelled to use this opportunity to emphasize my strongly held belief that we need to spent as much effort educating the public how to prevent child abuse as we spend educating the public on reporting child abuse.  What might happen if everybody who comes into contact with children in the course of their occupation played a role in prevention?   Physicians could follow the suggestion of the American Academy of Pediatricians and provide parents with anticipatory guidance so they know how to interpret and react to their child’s moods and behavior.   Health teachers could provide accurate information about the human body so pedophiles couldn’t trap kids lacking understanding of autonomic arousal.  Crossing guards might receive in-service training to help identify predators.  The list could go on!

Penn State did a good thing by adding all of their employees to the narrow list of mandated reporters of child abuse in Pennsylvania.  But can we please start looking at what else we all might do so that there are fewer cases to report?

Be prepared — Sex Abuse CAN happen here!

Some people like to believe that abuse of children is a problem restricted to the poor, or disadvantaged.  No so.   The sex abuse allegations involving a prep school upscale enough to  include the son of a governor  are a stark reminder that people who prey on kids can be anywhere.

Predators come in all shapes, sizes, neighborhoods and income levels.  They can ingratiate themselves into the lives of children and families as friends, coaches, clergy, baby sitters or teachers.   The most important step a parent can take is to have  open and honest  age-appropriate  conversations with their children throughout their childhood and adolescence.  Natural discussions that include all parts of the body are a key.   Conversational lessons about nice relationships — the kind where everyone considers each others feelings –can start with toddlers and continue as children develop a wider circle of acquaintances.  And here’s the step that most people skip — ensure that your child’s school and the other institutions in your community have take steps to prevent sexual abuse and have a well thought out policy on how to respond if allegations are made.

The best news to come out of this story  from the NJ prep school is that the administration appears to be behaving responsibly.   The alleged perpetrator was brought back from another state to face the NJ investigation and press reports quote his superiors as saying he is being kept under tight restrictions.

The title of this blog post mirrors the title of the last chapter in my book, The Sex Wise Parent.  There’s a lot to learn about being a prepared family and community, and you can find it in my book.