Whether your child hears the word rape in the news, reads it on the internet, or sees it on one of our materials, there are age-appropriate ways to talk to your child when he or she asks about it.
However, even before this comes up in conversation, there are a few things parents can put into practice with children and teens that will help set the stage for this discussion.
1. We want kids to know that their private parts are for them and off limits to others, but we also want them to know what they are and be comfortable talking about them. Using the anatomically correct terms of vagina, vulva, and penis can promote positive body image, self-confidence, and parent-child communication. Conversely, using euphemisms to describe private parts can promote the ideas of shame, discomfort, and embarrassment about bodies. And in the event of inappropriate touch, being able to use anatomically correct words helps the child be specific when reporting to parents or police.
2. We want kids to know, “Your body belongs to you!” With young children it is important to teach them that because their body belongs to them, they get to choose who touches their bodies and how and where they touch them. Putting this idea into practice at an early age can prepare them for healthy relationships as tweens, teens, and adults. Talk with your kids about what touches they like and don’t like. Do they like to be tickled? Do they like hugs? From whom do they like hugs? Maybe they like them from Mom and Dad but not from a certain grandparent, aunt, uncle, or sibling. Don’t pressure them to give hugs and kisses to grownups when they don’t want to. If you are worried about hurting the feelings of the other adult, you can say to your child, “That’s okay, your body belongs to you, and you can decide if you don’t want a hug or kiss today. How about blowing her a kiss or giving a high-five?” Empower your kids to say no if someone tries to touch their body in a way they don’t like.
3. Teaching consent can start at a very young age by modeling consent. Say to your toddler, “Can I pick you up?” Wait for their acknowledgement whether it is with body language or words. Before helping your child get dressed, ask, “Can I take off your pajamas?” And wait for consent. If they say no, but you have to get them dressed, explain to them what you are going to do and why – For example, “We have to go to the store and you have to wear clothes, so if you cannot do it by yourself, I have to help you.” Put the focus on helping them or keeping them safe. When playing games like tickling or wrestling, stop frequently and ask for consent. If your child says no, listen. When children are playing together, teach them that if the other person says no or stop, that you must listen. Enforce consequences for not listening.
Now if your child asks you what ‘rape’ means, you can use these well-enforced concepts along with age-appropriate language:
3-5 years old
Very young children often ask this question because they have not heard the word before and are exploring all sorts of new vocabulary words. As with other words that they hear but are too complex for their true understanding, they need a basic definition but are not really asking about the concept. You can say that it has to do with breaking a very important rule and that one person did not respect another person’s body. If the child demonstrates that they need more information, you can add that it is about one person touching another person’s private parts after they said no.
6-9 years old
By age six, most children know the concept of laws and crimes. You can say, “Rape is a crime dealing with inappropriate touches. It is when one person forces another to do something with their body that they don’t want them to do.” You can continue the discussion by reminding them of the Safety Saying and what they can do if someone touches their body in a way they don’t like: “Say No, Get Away, Tell Someone.”
9-12 years old
At this age, most children want more than an answer; they want to understand what it actually means and they also have the empathy to grasp the concept. Also, at this age children should have a basic understanding of sex and that it is supposed to be loving, caring, and something that both people want to do and enjoy. You can use that definition of sex to say that rape is the opposite of that. It is when one person forces a sexual act on another person who does not want it. It is very hurtful and a crime.
12+ years old
By this age, you can use the example they asked about to talk about healthy sexuality and consent. Explain that only yes means yes. Tweens and teens are probably consuming media that offer excellent opportunities for discussion – help them critically analyze problematic scenes from their favorite TV shows, comments they see on Facebook or other sites, and jokes they hear from friends. Depending on the examples or where the discussion leads, you may be able to have productive, age-appropriate conversations about consent, healthy relationships, victim-blaming, and rape culture.
Our Safe Touch programs teach not just prevention, but also empowerment and self-awareness. These messages can be repeated and reinforced at home on a daily basis. Empower children to pay attention to the types of touches they receive and how it makes them feel. If they don’t like it or if it makes them feel uncomfortable, then they have the right to speak up, to say no, and to tell an adult who will listen and help them. Teach children to respect everyone’s body and personal space, and to expect respect for their own body and personal space.
Alexis Kralic is our Education & Finance Coordinator. She manages our Safe Touch program, which teaches kids about personal safety from preschool through fifth grade.