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Stopping 'rape culture' starts with parents... earlier than you think

Parents are asking how and when to start sending messages to their children that can help prevent sexual assaults like the one at Stanford.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Last week, former Stanford student Brock Allen Turner, 20, was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman behind a campus dumpster during his freshman year in 2015 and sentenced to six months in county jail by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky.

In the wake of his sentencing and his victim’s powerful impact statement that revealed the horror of sexual assault, parents across the country are asking what they can do to help fight rape culture, and at what age can they start sending children messages that will discourage the behaviors and mindsets that contribute to it?

TODAY Tastemaker and child development expert and pediatrician Dr. Deborah Gilboa agrees. She suggests some simple ideas to keep in mind that could protect and prevent kids from the beliefs that perpetuate rape culture:

1. Don't force your kids to hug or kiss anyone — even relatives. Even you. "If each individual has the right to say no, then that means they always have the right to say no," Gilboa told TODAY Parents "You may require your child to make eye contact, speak politely to a family member or friend, but please don't allow them to be guilted or forced into showing or accepting physical affection. The mixed messages are too much for them to process."

2. Avoid sexualizing or romantacizing your kids' friendships. "It's adorable to see your toddler give another a kiss or take baths together — and if it happens spontaneously, that is nothing to worry about or stop, assuming it's OK with both kids," Gilboa said. "The trouble starts when we take pictures and post them on social media — you know they'll see them someday — or keep telling stories about 'Kelsey's little boyfriend.'"

3. Tell kids how to behave, not how to feel. "When we say to a child, 'There's nothing to be scared of,' or 'Don't be mad,' we tell them that their feelings are wrong," said Gilboa. "Kids need to know that all of their feelings are acceptable. Not all of their behaviors are, and we need to guide those behaviors. Try, 'I understand you're frustrated, but you may not hit.'"

4. Talk to tweens and teens about sex. A lot. "Help them understand that their desires and feelings are totally valid, but that no one else is ever responsible for helping them manage those desires," Gilboa said.

In an article in the Washington Post that has itself gone viral , University of Florida law professor Stacey Steinberg and licensed clinical psychologist Jennifer Sager, PhD outline their ideas for parenting young children — even toddlers and preschoolers — in a way that could fight against the behaviors and mindsets that contribute to rape culture. “While many parents discuss with older children and teens how to improve their safety in this culture, families are often silent about these issues during the early stages of childhood development,” the authors write. “Yet it is during this crucial period that parents can give children the most effective tools to recognize these high risk attitudes in society.”

In their article, Steinberg and Sager suggest teaching young children to respect their own and others’ emotions and to understand that no means no, but to also leave room for the possibility that someone might change their minds.

The authors told TODAY Parents said that the work of fighting against rape culture also extends beyond the home. “We need to allow our children to fail and learn how to graciously accept rejection,” said Sager. “We are starting to do this better in terms of academics and sports — we don’t always push for the A, we accept when our children aren’t picked for a team. We need to teach this in the social arena as well.”

Steinberg added, “It's not only parents who need to consider letting children experience disappointment. When kids are sad or mad, we need to allow them space to safely express their feelings, but we need not fix them. We need to allow our children to sit with their emotions and accept that things will not always go their way.”

After the past week’s focus on the sexual assault case at Stanford, Steinberg said it is crucial that parents acknowledge that rape culture does exist and the part that parents can play in fighting it. “We owe it to our children to shift this culture,” she said. “We all want our children to enter adulthood armed with the best tools to steer their life’s course."