Parents should be honest when talking to children about sexual harassment

October 15, 1991|By Jean Marbella

Chris Cunningham thinks her 8-year-old is too young to understand sexual harassment but old enough to understand two people disagreeing. Donald Greydanus' youngest daughter wants to know what the fuss is all about, while his oldest daughter already is certain Anita Hill is telling the truth.

Which is why discussions about the on-going Clarence Thomas nomination battle, as Joyanna Silberg of Shepard Pratt says, should "depend on the age of the child."

"For younger children, they can understand people shouldn't make personal comments to other people that are rude. So you can explain that that is what sexual harassment is," the child psychologist says.

"If you have a child in middle school, you may want to explain the politics of power. You might ask them if they've ever been bullied -- they surely know about that by that age."

Children who caught any of the televised hearings instead of their usual TV shows might have seen some adult fare -- grown-ups talking dirty and fighting nastily among themselves. So parents should be ready to answer any questions their children raise about the explosive issue, psychologists and others who work with children say.

"I think it's great to discuss it. It shouldn't be hush-hush," says Dr. Silberg. "I think it's kind of nice that it was on TV, although I think some of the graphic language shouldn't have been broadcast."

In answering children's questions, "I would be very honest about what it means," says Dr. Donald Greydanus, a professor of pediatrics at Michigan State University who specializes in child and adolescent sexuality. "What's damaging to kids is to feel like they're in a vacuum and don't know what's going on. The only kids who would be shaken up by this are those who feel they can't ask their parent or guardian what it means.

"Kids know adults lie. They know adults fight about things like sex," he says. "This could be the perfect time to discuss with them that adults do lie and disagree with each other, and when two people do something in private, we really don't know what happened between the two of them."

"It could prove to be a healthy discussion about what's going on with the system and the process, about democracy and the political process," said Michael Oidick, a specialist in the Baltimore city school district's psychological services department. "I talked to my own children, and clarified some things for them."

While the hearings made for some explosive verbal sparring, visually they were rather staid and thus most kids probably tuned out, psychologists say. It's adults, rather, who have become consumed with watching the unfolding real-life drama.

"I think it's the best TV in ages," said Ms. Cunningham, a Baltimore parent.

Her 8-year-old daughter has heard her discussing the issue with friends and asked a few questions, she says. She answered by explaining the dispute between the judge and his former assistant, without getting into the sexual harassment aspect.

Her 5-year-old son, by contrast, was only concerned that his usual Saturday cartoons were replaced by "grown-ups talking on TV."

"He was not real happy about that," Ms. Cunningham says. "He had to find something else to do."

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