As our kids mature, the built in antennae atop their heads seem to shoot up exponentially, and they begin to take in wider and wider worlds beyond their immediate experience. Something they’re increasingly drawn to are the hundreds and hundreds of new vocabulary words they inevitably read, see, or hear about from all manner of sources: peers, family, school, friends, TV, radio, movies, and the Internet. With the now 24/7/365 news cycle, and the alarming number of media and Internet outlets accessible even to young children, today’s parents shouldn’t be surprised by–or unduly alarmed by–almost any language children and teens ask about or use in everyday speech. All of it is rich fodder for endless “teachable moments.”
But, what if the particular word or concept at hand is one that’s so negative you’re afraid even to talk about it with your child, let alone explain or define it? For a lot of parents the word “rape” would certainly fall into that category.
There’s a very fast moving national news story unfolding right now (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/21/us/politics/rep-todd-akin-legitimate-rape-statement-and-reaction.html?_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20120821) over statements made by a candidate running for the US Senate in Missouri in which, among other incendiary remarks and factual inaccuracies, he used the phrase “legitimate rape,” thereby implying that there is such a thing as “illegitimate” rape. Politicians and other individuals and groups are weighing in on the issue in newspapers, online, and on TV and radio programs across the country. For kids seven or eight and up, and perhaps even younger, the word “rape” is going to be hard to escape.
So, your child hears the word rape on the car radio four times within one news segment and asks “What’s that?” What’s a parents to do? Explaining the concept of rape to your child right then and there would probably feel like jumping knee deep into Chapter Twelve when your son or daughter hasn’t yet even begun Chapter One!
But we want to get there first, right? And we want to be “open,” right?
As always, without being evasive at all, if we stop and remember to look at the world through our children’s eyes, rather than our own adult-oriented lens, and to take into account the child’s current level of cognitive development, figuring out what to say or do isn’t so difficult at all. I’ll pass on a great rule of thumb: the younger the child, the more general the answer, and the older the child the more specific you can feel fee to be. Here are some examples:
1. A very young child simply wants a place marker about new vocabulary words that are in their world but far beyond their true understanding. So, start with a concept your child can understand, and hook your answer to that. A good example might be: “That’s a word that has to do with breaking an important rule.”
2. Children ages 6-8 are typically capable of understanding the concept of “laws” and “crimes” (laws are rules our government makes that people are supposed to obey; a crime is a word police use when someone has broken a law). Here are some increasingly complex answers for kids 6-8, depending on their level of intellectual maturity.
- Rape is a kind of crime
- Rape is a terrible crime that hurts people.
- Rape is a serious crime where one person forces another person to do something they don’t want to do.
3. Children ages 9-12 are often less satisfied their younger selves with general answers to topics they really want to know about. In other wards, they don’t just want “an” answer, they want a more specific answer that helps them understand what the word means. Eventually, they’ll be ready to understand intellectually that, unlike other types of crimes, rape has a sexual component.
To truly grasp the concept of rape, though, they’ll need a bigger and much more positive context to fold it into. In other words, adults will need to set the proper stage by front-loading conversations about healthy sexuality first. Here’s the backdrop concept that kids can grasp as young as nine or ten. It’s one that will take more than one conversation, for sure, but is well worth it as a basis for their understanding of healthy sexual development in all respects: “A sexual connection–which means when two people hug and kiss and bring their bodies close together in a special and unique way that gives them wonderful feelings of pleasure, called sexual pleasure–is supposed to be loving, caring, gentle, enjoyable, and something both people choose to do freely.” With that as background, an explanation of rape will come much more easily: “Remember when we talked about what sex is supposed to be about? Rape is very, very different from that. In fact it’s totally the opposite. Rape is when one person forces a sexual act onto another person against his or her will. Rape is always wrong, it’s very hurtful, and it’s a very serious crime.”
4. Children ages 13-22, and many 12-year-olds: Go for it! Read about this story from multiple sources, talk about it at the dinner table, and engage your children in conversation about its many complexities. And, for sure, remember to point out more than once that force is force, and rape is rape, no matter the circumstances or the nature of the relationship between the two people.