"Mom, what is rape?"
It's not exactly the kind of question a parent invites at the dinner table or while driving a car full of youngsters. But it's a question that parents may be hearing in the wake of the Mike Tyson trial and other highly publicized criminal cases.
How a parent ought to answer that question depends on a child's age, his understanding of sexual intercourse and his general level of inquisitiveness. Keep the information simple, gear it to a child's age and development and don't tell a child more than he wants to know. Often one sentence is enough.
Psychologist Leon A. Rosenberg says the crucial age in this discussion is 9, the time when sex education usually occurs and a child understands the concept of sexual intercourse. For youngsters 9 and older, a parent can explain that rape is forced intercourse and that "it's a violent act, it's an assault . . . it isn't loving sex," says Dr. Rosenberg of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.
For younger children, Dr. Rosenberg suggests that parents say "rape is a certain kind of way a man hurts a woman." Tell a child that rape is "a grown-up word that he'll understand better when he is older." Also let the child know the man will be punished for hurting the woman.
Angelina Anthony of Baltimore's Sexual Assault Recovery Center suggests that children as young as 3 can understand safe and unsafe touching and that rape can be explained to young children as touching a woman on private parts of her body when she doesn't want to be touched there.
After "what?" children will often ask "why?"
Both Dr. Rosenberg and Ms. Anthony agree that it is all right for parents to say they don't know why one person rapes another. Or, suggests Dr. Rosenberg, to say that a man makes a mistake, hurting a woman because he is mad at her or other women.
It's a good idea, he adds, to ask a child what he is hearing about a particular incident, so that a parent can clear up any myths or incorrect information that might be circulating.
When a prominent rape case is in the news -- and perhaps the buzz of playgrounds -- it is not unusual for children to talk about it. But when children ask out of the blue about rape, touching or parts of their body, parents should pay extra attention, says Ms. Anthony, the director of client services for the Sexual Assault Recovery Center. They should answer youngsters' questions and then ask their own to find out what's prompting the children's inquiries. "Always stop and listen," she advises. These questions can signal problems -- with one's child or one of her friends who is being abused.
Here are some other suggestions:
* Make it clear that "when sex is forced, it's no fun and it can hurt. The woman absolutely does not enjoy it," Dr. Rosenberg says.
* Reassure youngsters that most adults would never hurt them. But stress that "their bodies belong only to them and they have a right to say 'no' to anyone."