It’s a complicated question. How do you talk to your kids about a subject that makes you squirm? You can’t skirt around it because it’s everywhere—on the radio, on Facebook, and all newspapers and TV channels, and facing it head down means readying yourself for questions that have no simple answers.
Of course, there are ways to handle the discussion delicately. We talked to mothers as well as child experts on the subject, and here’s how they suggest we handle things.
It depends on their age and gender. Priya Bhardwaj, a mother to a 10-year-old girl, has been having discussions about sexual behaviour and gender violence for two years now. Her little girl had known about good touch and bad touch since 2, but Priya has opened up more since the cases have started getting highlighted in the media.
Sushmita Gupta’s boy, aged 14 and 7, haven’t been curious about it but she wants to have the conversation about sex and gender violence soon. “They know about good touch and bad touch, but we haven’t talked about sex yet. I am planning to bring it up any day now.”
Mother of two boys, aged 10 and 12, Shalini Sukhija has decided the time. “I didn’t want to rush into it, so I have decided to talk to them next year. They should be able to understand it, be comfortable with the topic. At a general level, I’m always talking about respect and how we should treat girls.”
“The talk about good touch and bad touch should happen as early as when they are 2 or 3,” Kuldeep Saroliya, teacher and academician suggests. The concept of rape, in a very subtle way, can be mentioned when they are between 6 and 8.
The rule of thumb is that you should answer any question they may have. “Reassure them that nothing they ask is inconsequential or silly,” Dr Maitri Chand, Marriage and Family Therapist weighed in. “You need to empower them, too. They should know the safety measures that are in place for them, so they aren’t scared.”
Dr Shubha Madhusudhan, Clinical Psychologist, Fortis, Bengaluru mentioned that the way you speak about it is just as important. The voice, diction, choice of words, pauses, intonation—everything matters.
“Keep the channels of communication open. If they hear something harmful or see something, you sit them down and ask them, ‘You just heard this, do you want to talk about it? Do you know what it means?’” Dr Chand advised. You have to help them process this information age-appropriately. A 5-year-old has no context of sexual crimes and a 10-year-old may get scared if he/she gets this information from unreliable sources. So, it boils down to sound parenting.
Ritika Jain, mother to a 14-year-old, practices the same. “If she has questions, I am always ready to answer. You can’t sit down one day and preach. You have to talk to them all the time.”
“From an early age, minimise gender biases, beliefs and prejudice,” Ms Anna Chandy, Chairperson, Board of Trustees, Live Love Laugh Foundation recommended. The stories of camaraderie, respect and compassion are a good way to instill gender equality.
Both boys and girls need to know about good touch and bad touch, both need to be taught about safety, both need to be reassure that they can come and talk to their parents. Girls need to be empowered: they should know they have a right to say no and they have a right to defend themselves. For boys, it’s important to know that anger/violence is not a solution and respect is non-negotiable.
When young boys suffer assault, it is often not reported. It often embarrasses kids to speak out because the male construction warrants masculinity. So, you need the vocabulary to help your boy child express his emotions.
Nurture sensitivity and empathy in boys and increase awareness about the privilege that they have in the society. More often than not, boys don’t realise that they are favoured more and that’s a larger problem in the society.
Keep your guard up and head down, parents tell the girls. The rulebook of their conduct grows longer as they age, while boys are often spared the talk. But this conversation is not just important for their safety, but the guidelines may help them realise their boundaries from an early age. Remember this small fact: It’s the reality of our society. The perpetrator isn’t an alien; he lives with us. So begin the change at home so that if your kid’s friend makes a sexist remark, your kid questions why he’s friends with him, so that he doesn’t become the one who’s harassing girls.
“When my 13-year-old son was taught reproduction in school, the teacher discouraged questions and shut down their concerns. So, I sat him down and told him he could ask me whatever he wanted. We discussed safe sex, periods, consent,” the mother, Sudhalika Verma, told me.
On the other hand, a South Delhi school organises two health education classes every month for students in 6th grade and higher. It is an open discussion about everything that’s relevant—puberty, cyber bullying, and rape. “It’s a normal class like science or computer, so children know that they can talk about it,” the school counsellor said.
Sex education is biological in schools; they don’t talk about relationships. You need to know enough about sex to distinguish between power-oriented sex (which is what rape is) and lovemaking. Dr Chand stresses on regular sessions in school to help kids express their fears and understand violence.
As complex as this subject is, it needs you to be sensitive and cautious. There are no set-in-stone rules for parenting, no guidelines, and at the end of the day, you know your child’s emotional needs. Tread carefully on this path and be an agent of change.