Talking to Teens about Sexual Harassment

A couple of years ago, a student in an all-girl classroom I was speaking to shared that boys were grabbing their butts during passing periods. A show of hands indicated 29 out of 30 had experienced this! After hearing from them that if they protested “it would get worse,” I spoke to them clearly about what they were allowing, and why they should stand up to it, then put them in groups and tasked them with deciding what to do the next time it happened. One girl wrote me afterwards that the next time it happened, she slapped the guy.  I’m not sure I intended to incent violence, but it WAS assault (let’s be clear!), and she finally treated it as such. She said she was treated with respect after that. Every year since, as I kept hammering home that “your body belongs to YOU,” the numbers came down…and this year only 3 in a class of 30 had been groped! It makes a difference when we talk to our teens and prepare them to stand up to seSilent No Morexual harassment. This is just one of the things Teen Decision does, as we talk to teens about sex, and dating.

According to a Washington Post article, in a national study on sexual harassment, “87 percent of respondents [ages 18-24] reported they had been the victim of at least one form of sexual harassment,” and “72 percent of men and 80 percent of women reported that they never had a conversation with parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others.”  Parents, we have to do better! We’ve all seen the news about politicians and Hollywood celebrities getting away with sexual misbehavior for decades. Now is a great time to take advantage of the public conversation, and expose these boorish (often criminal) behaviors for what they are.  The Post article has GREAT suggestions for how to talk to your teen. Take a moment to read the article, and have that conversation…NOW.

If you like the work Teen Decision does, and how we help boys AND girls advocate for themselves and stand strong for their right to “SAY NO” to sex…consider a donation! If you’re on our blog page now, look for the green “Donate” button. Or go to teendecision.org.  People like you, who love and care about teens, are the ones who keep us going, and we need your help to finish 2017, as we stay on track to serve 8,000 students this school year. 

Helping Kids Spot Fake News

Are you like me?  Have you been sent/forwarded something that caused your “skeptical” alarms to go off?  I graduated with a degree in Journalism, and I just can’t help myself from being a skeptic when faced with some wild and (truly) unbelievable story that is spreading like wildfire.  If adults can be fooled, how about kids, whLies Trutho often don’t have a clue where to go for “real” news.  Growing up in an age of newspapers, where journalistic integrity was at least held up as the standard (whether always followed or not), older generations are more used to researching, asking questions, and challenging a source when something seems “off.” But our kids are getting most of their news from their feeds, and who knows what they are hearing and believing?  In fact, Common Sense Media in an online report (with great infographics) found that “less than half of kids agree that they know how to tell fake news stories from real ones.”

One encouraging item in the above-linked report is that kids tend to trust news from family more than any other source.  If you want to help your teen become a THINKING consumer of news media, there are some things you can do.  Commonsensemedia.org has some great resources and ideas.  I usually go there for analysis of TV shows, and movies from a parent’s perspective (you’ll find out in detail why a movie is PG-13, or R-rated for instance).  But they also have a lot of insightful articles about how we as parents can help our kids use media wisely and well.  Two articles there that will give you some ideas on how to talk to your kids are:  “How to Spot Fake News,” and “Teaching Kids Media Smarts During Breaking News.”

Musical.ly app Presents Problems

Commonsensemedia.org is my go-to site to check out anything media-related. One of my goals is to keep parents informed about the teen world…and teens are into musical.ly, an app that allows you to “Create beautiful music videos with your favorite songs, and share with friends.”  Musically.ly claims it is “the world’s fastest growing social network around music and lifestyle.”

Thesemusically app logo parents discovered a whole lot more:

“I thought it was just an innocent app where you can lip-synch and make music videos….  I took a look at what she had done, and there were some music videos that had inappropriate language in them…. On top of that, I realized that even without Internet access, anybody in the community could view her videos, and she could view theirs. There is a setting to set it up that only her friends could view her videos, but it still really bothered me.… After I started exploring the app, I realize that at the bottom of the video people could put hashtags. I clicked on a hash tag, which took me to another video with a different suggestive sounding hashtag at the bottom that I clicked on, which then took me to videos that were Adult content.”

If your child searches the hashtags, they WILL find pornographic videos. It took me less than a minute after I installed the app to find it. The hashtag that brought it up was #adult

“My kids had worked together and used our pets, stuffed animals and even we parents got in on making some pretty hilarious music videos. The BIG problem is that a lot of the available music and sound bites contain all the very adult language and innuendo you hear on the radio. So when left to her own devices, I found my 10 year old lip syncing to suggestive lyrics she didn’t even understand. And dancing and gesturing the way a rock diva does- not the way I want her spending her free time. What’s worse is that the rating system becomes addictive (see the reviews by the kids). She and her friends kept pushing the envelope to see how many “likes” they could get. What originally was supposed to be a private account became public for the thrill of getting the approval of strangers. Definitely started off sweet and innocent, then due to these unsavory lyrics, went down a bad path when I wasn’t watching. Family decision was made to delete the app tonight amid lots of tears and even I was sad to see our cute videos go.”

 

Modesty and Sexual Harassment — Prevention vs. Victim Blaming

There is a broken record that plays at our house, where both my young boys grab toys and hit and then blame the other brother for “starting it”: You are responsible for YOU.  I don’t really care who started it. I care about my children learning to keep their hands to themselves and to respect other children’s persons and property, regardless of what happens to them. Parents, I’m sure you understand. This concept is not new.

Why, then, does this concept go out the window when it comes to modesty and sexual harassment; prevention of sexual assault and blaming the victim? When stories like this one show up, there is a great teaching opportunity for parents of both boys and girls. In this instance, I learn about a 15-year-old girl (whose photo, scraped from her Facebook page for the article, reveals a broad, generous smile, among other things) complained to an airline about being groped by a fellow passenger. She could provide insufficient evidence, no actual charges were brought, but the airline evidently responded in a letter: “The flight attendants and passengers also stated that you and your daughter were allowed to move to other seats several times, that Chelsea repeatedly moved in and out of her seat, crawling over the other customer who was attempting to sleep, and that your daughter wore extremely short shorts.”

I can see two equally likely scenarios that could have played out, and likely the truth, which we won’t ever know, is a mixture of the two. I can see a bubbly, well-endowed teenager in revealing clothing unable to sit still on the long flight, moving in and out, bumping against a passenger whose proximity is uncomfortable for her (who finds the proximity of fellow passengers on planes comfortable?) attempting to get a better seat by complaining to the airline. I can also envision a man capturing the opportunity afforded to him by the movements of his young, attractive seat mate, knowing it is difficult if not impossible for women to ever prove sexual harassment occurred. But really, the truth doesn’t matter to me, because I am not sitting in judgment of either individual (for which I am thankful) — what I care about as a parent is what I need to teach my children. You are responsible for YOU. 

If you are sitting next to someone young, vulnerable, attractive, and no one is watching what you are doing: show deference, avoid looking at anything that would normally be covered up, and keep your hands to yourself. If you are young and attractive (or old and attractive, or female) dress and behave in a way that discourages or redirects sexual advances — not in short shorts. (Hmmm, I think that is the sound of the comment box filling with criticism and dissent.)

Hear me out: what I teach you, o daughters of mine, is not what I wish you had to know, but what I know you need to know. Is it fair that black mothers have to teach their black sons how to behave so that police don’t shoot them? No. But they do, because their sons need to know it. In the same way, women today need to know how to deflect negative sexual attention, and we all know that short shorts is not the way to do that. Can we please just acknowledge that modesty is a form of protection and prevention, without being accused of suggesting that an immodest woman is “asking for it”?

If you are reading this blog, you probably have teen-aged children. Whether they are boys or girls, please share a word with them about how to dress in the heat without risking their personal dignity, as well as how to interact with others in a world that does not live up to their high standards of what “should” or “shouldn’t” be okay in the clothing department.

I Don’t Know; I Wasn’t Thinking…

Do you remember the “cinnamon challenge” a couple of years back?  I wrote a blog about it, and also asked teens about it in the classroom.  Back then, teens were trying to swallow cinnamon powder without water, leading to choking, which teens thought was oh so funny, and in some cases hospitalization from inhaling the powder into their lungs.  Well, that one has faded, and now YouTube and Facebook video postings of the “fire challenge” have grabbed the attention of young people.  In this challenge, a teen pours rubbing alcohol on his skin, and sets himself (usually, it’s a “him”) on fire.  Other versions involve spraying one’s body with an aerosol can or dousing with nail polish remover before striking a match.

I know…WHAT ARE THEY THINKING?!!  Well, apparently, according to one blistered and burned student, “I don’t know; I wasn’t thinking really.”  That 15-year-old said that the videos didn’t show the end result.  Just four days ago, another 15-year-old boy was severely burned doing the stunt, and was airlifted to a hospital.

As one article said: “It’s impossible to guess what ‘the kids’ will dream up next — as long as they have cameras and underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes, there’s really no saying.” The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for weighing consequences,  planning, distinguishing right from wrong, and determining socially appropriate behavior.  It doesn’t fully develop until the mid-20s.  As I say in my parent workshops, it’s YOUR job to be their pre-frontal cortex for a few more years.  So review that article (linked above) entitled, “A comprehensive guide to YouTube’s dumbest and most dangerous teen trends.” Then talk to your teen today about using his or her head before letting peer pressure get the upper hand.

How a Bad Apple can change a School

Rotten Apple

Most of the stats that we include on our site, in our blogs, or in our classroom instruction refer to the general population of the US. While they are generally accurate, and I can confidently say they reflect many if not most situations, there are always exceptions. We teach at over 35 schools whose health classes vary in size from 5 (yes, 5) to 90. In almost a decade of experience, I have seen a school’s cultural attitudes about sex shift in both positive and negative ways. My experience has taught me a lot about the power of one Bad Apple.

In any given school climate, regardless of how hard teachers, parents, and administrators have worked to instill good values in their students, you occasionally run across a cluster of kids making poor decisions at a disproportionately greater rate. This can happen in both public and private schools, though ironically I find the power of a Bad Apple is more potent in the private schools, simply because they are smaller. It might look like this: at a middle school that almost always has “good” kids, where hardly anyone has actually had sex, suddenly a class comes along that misbehaves more in 6th grade, rebels more when they get to 7th grade, and by 8th grade, the principal is dealing with cases of oral chlamydia.

I don’t have time or space to dissect the sociology behind the phenomenon, but I do want to discuss what parents should consider and how they can help inoculate their child against it. First, I should say that there isn’t always just one “Bad Apple.” I use the term to refer to how an attitude or idea can slowly seep into a population and turn an otherwise positive culture into an unhealthy one. It might start with one person, but one could rarely actually pinpoint that person. So be slow to point fingers.

Parents do need to recognize, however, that the power of a bad apple makes it impossible to completely shield their child from negative influences. For example, I had a friend whose parents sent her to a Christian school, hoping for the environment to shield her from the worst of popular culture. In hindsight, however, she had a harder time making good choices than a similar friend at a public school. In the small, private school, a few bad apples had introduce and normalized oral sex among the students. My friend had been taught to follow the Christian culture of her school, so when oral sex was normalized among her supposedly Christian peers, she felt like it was okay to go along with it. In contrast, my friend at the public school had been taught not to go along with the crowd and to expect to stand out (she was also from a strong Christian family), so when her friends started engaging in oral sex, she figured it was another thing to avoid rather than follow.

The difference between the two is that my friend in the private school had not been taught to recognize and steer clear of the influence of a bad apple. When parents ignore the possibility that an otherwise positive, healthy culture can suddenly become hijacked by a bad apple, they can fail to teach their child to make good decisions despite an unhealthy culture.

What can you do? Talk to your teenager about how the poor decisions of others can influence their thinking, normalizing unhealthy behavior. Here is an example of a small high school of about 300 that suddenly faced 20 cases of Chlamydia. My guess is that a bad apple influenced the school’s cultural attitudes about sex, resulting in high rates of risky behavior. Would your teen know what to do if 20 of their friends were making unhealthy decisions? How would they respond?

Giving Tuesday and teaching generosity

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For the third year in a row, non-profits, charities and community service organizations have encouraged families and individuals to participate in Giving Tuesday — the day after Black Friday and Cyber Monday. This is a great opportunity to encourage generosity in our kids!

What Success Looks Like

I have several nephews and a niece in elementary school right now. It is such a privilege to watch them grow up and to see the world through their eyes. Nothing beats watching a child “get it,” whether that’s learning to read or learning to share. Not too long ago, my brother-in-law told me a story about my nephew, who was then around 5 or 6. Their family has worked hard to raise their children to be aware of the needs of others and to act generously. Still, as I am sure all parents know, children seem to have an inherent self-centeredness. So it still brings me to tears when I think about my young nephew spontaneously coming to the conclusion and telling his dad, “I have a lot of toys. Those other kids don’t. Can we box up some of these toys and give them to the other kids?”

Webinar of Ideas

I hope there are many more parents out there working to instill the value of generosity in their children. If you want some ideas, I learned about this webinar coming up on November 24. Consider participating and getting some ideas for your own family to encourage giving this holiday season. I know I plan to participate and I look forward to helping my own kids learn to share!

The Antithesis of Fifty Shades of Grey

There is a movie coming out Valentine’s weekend that I am actually excited to see. It is NOT Fifty Shades of Grey.

Old Fashioned looks like the kind of love story that is worth seeing and sharing, unlike the other Valentine’s weekend release.

One is unashamedly lustful and dark, the other unabashedly not. Call me old fashioned, but I find it much more fulfilling to spend my time and money on reminders of the good in life.

Too Fat to Fit In?

I recently learned of a brand of clothing that achieves exclusivity not through price, but through size. Brandy Melville offers almost all of its clothing in either size “small” or “one-size-fits-most” (as long as “most people” are small). The brand is one of the hottest lines of clothing for teens, according to research firm Piper Jaffray.

It is not new for teens to try to build their identity and gain acceptance and a sense of belonging through their clothing choices. It is simply the brands and the looks that change. But while previous generations of teens were barred from the most exclusive looks by price (or were forced to spend far more than they could afford on designer labels or celebrity endorsed merchandise), Brandy Melville is relatively inexpensive. Instead, the brand has set the price of entry into its club at being very, very skinny. Now, instead of a teen blowing all her savings on a purse she really can’t afford, she is pressured to go to unhealthy measures in order to fit the same size pants as everyone else.

The immature part of my brain remembers being poor and skinny as a teen and thinks “Where was this when I was 16?!” But the mature part, the wiser woman in me, has learned that in life, the target for superficial popularity is always moving. Basing one’s identity on a look or a brand will never really satisfy the human need for security and belonging. But how do parents teach that to their children?

It was one thing for parents to refuse to purchase expensive clothing when the family couldn’t afford it. At least teens could blame their parents for being too poor or frugal. My fear is that teen girls will blame themselves for not fitting into Brandy Melville — and that their disappointment or anger will turn towards their bodies (even more so than it already does for young adults). Parents, especially those of girls who are too normal-sized to fit into the skinny brand, must help their children understand the dark side of marketing and branding. Companies like Brandy Melville prey on insecurities — they need us as consumers to feel inadequate without their product. But clothing is not our identity, and it can never create acceptance. Clothing is at its most basic level a tool to keep us protected from the environment. Yes, it can be used for self-expression, but if you are dissatisfied without the clothing, you will be dissatisfied with it.

Are your teens victims of marketing who strive to purchase only the “cool” brands? Consider:

  • Banning Brandy Melville on principle, even for your children who could fit into the clothing. Refuse to buy into the unhealthy standard that all girls should be shaped a particular way.
  • Check your own attitude about clothing and identity. Do you model an attitude that clothing does not define an individual?
  • Challenge your teen to develop his or her own style. For example, challenge them to only buy clothing from resale shops for the next 6 months.
  • Purge magazines from your home. Magazines are often glorified catalogues that feed the desire for particular looks and brands.
  • Encourage your teen to develop a more global awareness of what life is like for others who cannot afford to be obsessed with their looks. The popular Hunger Games movies and books are easy conversation starters: ask questions about the parallels between the image-obsessed residents of the Capitol and our culture’s obsession with brands like Brandy Melville.

Have more ideas? Share them in the comments section!