This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.
My “birds and bees” talk was about actual bees. I was about 12 years old and driving with my dad on I-35 North, outside of Minneapolis, when he suddenly just started going on about how bees collect pollen and nectar from the stamen, the male reproductive organ of the flower, and then eventually this pollen rubs off onto the female reproductive organ, the pistil, of some other flower and then–voila, fertilization! And that’s how sex works.
It was a classic Russ Rothman entomological misdirection: Tell your wife you had The Talk–not about actual human adults having consensual intercourse, but about biological reproduction involving non-human organisms from two different genuses.
Needless to say, I didn’t put too much thought into the talk at the time. And while I’m sure my dad figured “mission accomplished,” it’s easy to see how an approach like his doesn’t always cut it. Headlines in the past few months have alleged sexual misconduct by dozens of high-powered men, like Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Russell Simmons, Mario Batali, Louis C.K.–the list goes on. I cofounded the digital media company Fatherly in 2015 in order to use evidence-based insights and first-person perspectives to help dads everywhere to become better parents, and better men.
It’s clear to me our mission has never been more important. Russ Rothman was working with the limited tools he had–there was no instantly available parenting media in 1988–but in 2018, there’s a clearer path. When it comes to talking to kids about the latest predatory male behavior–and raising kids who know to behave differently–here’s what our editorial team suggests, based on the latest evidence.
Have The Talk–About Consent
Experts such as Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Andrea Bastiani Archibald have warned that kids, especially daughters, need to have the right to say no to physical touch. Otherwise, Bastiani Archibald warns, it sets a dangerous precedent that makes children question what physical touch they “owe” others.
While this doesn’t mean “come give Grandma a kiss” should be met with physical resistance, it does mean adults need to help kids articulate what they are comfortable with (maybe a high-five instead), which teaches children from an early age that everyone has autonomy over their own bodies. Parents should take this a step further, especially for their sons, and make sure that they understand the autonomy they have over their own body goes for other kids, too–and that touching, teasing, or hair-pulling is a part of that, even if you’re doing it because you like her. And if she doesn’t want to play that (or any other) game anymore, you should stop.
At the two organizations where I volunteer–Career Gear, which helps men in poverty secure employment, and Big Brothers, which provides adult mentorship to fatherless boys–we’ve consistently experienced a male volunteer gap: men typically give money before they give their time. But it’s “presence over presents”: research suggests that boys lean on their fathers or adult male role models as they develop interpersonal skills, particularly empathy and social intelligence. So if you’re a father, stepdad, an uncle, or someone who mentors boys, be aware that children base much of their behavior on what they see you do. You are a model for appropriate masculinity.
Nearly every parenting researcher will tell you that kids see much more than we ever give them credit for. Every comment, look, or action is observed and noted. Adults are the model for how to interact with a world that children have zero experience navigating. So to raise better kids, we need to be better men. And if we’re making that effort in their presence, why not make it all the time?
A recent Pew study reveals that only 29% of American adults think boys are encouraged enough to discuss their emotions, versus 51% who said the same about girls. Additionally, researchers have found that fathers react more positively to their daughters’ happy emotions, while reacting more favorably when boys respond neutrally. Studies by the American Psychological Association have suggested that this discrepancy may even contribute to the consistent findings that girls outperform boys in school. Allowing boys to express empathy helps cultivate better socialization skills that are valuable not just in school but in the workplace later in life.
Awkward conversations with your kid are a time-honored rite for every parent and child, and yet they’re the key to raising more emotionally well-adjusted kids. Whether you couch the particulars in metaphor or address the issues head on, the time to address them is now.Importantly, as uncomfortable as those conversations can be, most of the squeamishness comes from adults. Grown-ups have a lifetime of sexual history they cart around on their backs, coloring their understanding of the issues. That’s not the case with kids. So take a deep breath and accept that their innocent questions are just that.
And it’s fine to wait until they have questions, or appear to be showing curiosity. There’s no need to launch into answers about insects and plants when a kid isn’t asking about sex or sexual harassment. But if they do have questions, there is a key in answering: Keep answers honest, and keep explanations short. A child doesn’t need to know the sordid details: “A person he worked with did not want to be touched, and he touched them anyway. Now he’s in trouble.” is a totally appropriate way to offer up the cultural moment if a kid wants to know. They can understand that, and better yet, they know you are there for answers.
But even with honesty and preparation, The Talk might not go as you expect. Your kids may cringe, or purport to not know what the hell you’re talking about. But as I can attest 25 years later, and have confirmed with all of experts we’ve spoken with at Fatherly, the kids are listening.