Parents find campaign offers teachable moments to discuss sexual assault

Story highlights

  • Parents never imagined the presidential campaign would provide learning moments for kids on sexual assault
  • Mothers and fathers are even talking to younger kids -- in age-appropriate ways -- about consent

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

This story contains graphic language.

(CNN)Some of the most important topics that we should be discussing with our children are often the toughest, and sex and sexual assault are definitely in that category.

So many parents look for a way in to have "the talk" or many talks with their children about these issues.
    Who knew that a presidential campaign that's unlike any in recent history would provide a treasure trove of teachable moments for parents about consent and sexual assault?
    In my conversations over email with parents across the country, mothers and fathers said they are using Donald Trump's comments on the now-infamous "Access Hollywood" tape and allegations that he kissed and groped several women against their will as a way to talk to their children about what's appropriate language and behavior and what is inappropriate and illegal.
    Amy Robinson, a mother of three, said she has had multiple conversations with her 19-year-old daughter about what she is hearing, experiencing and observing as a woman.
    A recent conversation led to the subject of sexual harassment in the workplace and the "dance" that women often do in their heads, beginning with "Did that just happen?" and often ending with "Surely, that didn't happen. I must be crazy" or "I don't want to come across as weak or sounding like a bitch," relayed Robinson, the founder of Tribe of Women, an organization dedicated to building cultures of women and more good men.
    Since that conversation, her daughter has come home with stories in which she has spoken up for herself in situations where she might have previously hesitated, she said.
    Robinson has also talked to her boys, ages 11 and 15, especially after the tape of Trump's vulgar comments about women surfaced.
    "I've been heartened to hear how disgusted by Donald Trump's remarks they have been, especially as a supposed leader," Robinson said. "In that regard, what we've ended up talking about is how we are all leaders, every day. That just because they are young doesn't meant that they don't have an opportunity to influence what is around them."
    Micky Marie Morrison also has two boys and used the tape and Trump's defense that this was just "locker room talk" as a way to explain to her sons, ages 10 and 14, the difference between speaking lewdly and actual sexual harassment and assault.
    "I feel it's important for my boys to learn that not only is it inappropriate and disrespectful for them to talk about women the way they have heard on the Trump tape, it is beyond disrespectful and, in fact, illegal for a man to touch a woman without her consent," said Morrison, founder of BabyWeight TV and author of "Baby Weight: The Complete Guide to Prenatal and Postpartum Fitness."
    "They definitely understand now that the big deal about the tape was not the lewd speech. It was that a presidential candidate was bragging about kissing and groping women without their consent, because he could, and that is assault."

    Having age-appropriate conversations is key

    Parents of younger children say they, too, are using the news from the presidential campaign to have conversations with their kids but are editing out the most salacious details and talking to their children in age-appropriate ways.
    Buzz Bishop is a father of two boys, ages 6 and 9, in Calgary, Alberta. "I'm not getting into detailed conversations with them, but I am explaining that when two people kiss, it has to be because two people want to. You're not allowed to do something to someone they don't want to have happen to them," said Bishop, a broadcaster who writes about parenting on his blog DadCAMP.
    "We're having consent conversations but in language that is appropriate to their age and understanding."
    The language that has been used during the campaign, in particular the language Trump used on the tape, has certainly led to some unusual moments for parents of younger children.
    Avital Norman Nathman, whose son is 9, said he heard someone use "pussy" and asked what that was. "So we ended up talking about it," said Nathman, founder of The Mamafesto blog and editor of the anthology on motherhood "The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality." "I'd rather he get an explanation from me than from a fellow 9-year-old."
    Beth Engelman, a single mother of an 11-year-old son, said that while this may be an "incredibly dark period" in American politics, she believes there is a "silver lining" in the ability of parents to teach their children to do things differently.
    She said she has talked with her son about what it means to objectify women, what it means to invade someone's personal space and touch them inappropriately, and how if you hear someone saying something offensive, you either disagree or walk away, because high-fiving the person or egging them on is just as offensive.
    Kids weigh in on presidential race
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      Kids weigh in on presidential race


    Kids weigh in on presidential race 02:36
    "I think these are really good things to talk about with an 11-year-old boy, but I hate that they come up because of one of our presidential nominees," said Engelman, co-founder of the digital platform Mommy on a Shoestring. "I don't think 'protecting' my son means not letting him see the debates or watch the news for fear of what Trump might say. I think protecting him means arming him with insight about the issues and reinforcing values that will help him make good decisions going forward."

    Parents find that getting personal helps

    Some parents find that talking about their own experiences growing up is a way for their children to truly understand the ramifications of sexually offensive language and sexual assault.
    GG Benitez, a mother of three, had her children listen to the entire Trump tape from beginning to end. She explained to her 10-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter how nobody has the right to touch anybody else without their permission and how it is never something to joke about, because women and men have been victimized by such behavior, and it can affect them their entire lives.
    She then explained to her son that bragging to other boys about what girl he might kiss one day or talking in more detail than that may make him feel good in the moment, but it may come at the expense of how the girl will feel.
    "I then shared with my kids some personal stories from high school about girls I knew who had their self-esteem destroyed when boys had done this," said Benitez, who founded and runs the public relations firm GG Benitez & Associates. "I want both my daughter and son to be aware, respect themselves and others always, and to be open to discussing these topics with me."
    The presidential campaign has really presented parents with a chance to get into a topic they might not have addressed with their kids for years.
    "This is an excellent opportunity to have an open discussion about sexual consent and what is not consent, especially for children 12 and older," said Louise Sattler, a psychologist and owner of Signing Families, a company focused on teaching the basics of sign language to people of all ages and abilities. Parents can also expand the scope of the conversation and discuss predators who use social media.
    "So, we don't need to frame it as a political conversation but one of safety," Sattler said.
    Katia Bishops, a mom of two boys in Toronto, said she has really been thinking long and hard about how to make Trump's comments and the allegations against him a learning moment for her children.
    She said she has enough faith in her children's characters to know that they wouldn't prey on someone weaker, but she wonders what she can do to make sure she raises empowered bystanders.
    "How do you raise children who are confident enough to not participate in that kind of discourse and to put a stop to it when they encounter such offensive rhetoric?" asked Bishops, who blogs about parenting and tackled this issue in a recent post for a parenting website in Canada.
    The way to do it, she said, is "by concentrating on teaching children how to say no and by explaining the meaning of consent over and over again whenever a day-to-day opportunity presents itself."
    For instance, making it clear to her children that they do not make decisions regarding their sibling's body is one way to make the point, said Bishops, whose kids are 4 and 7. So is not continuing to brush a sibling's hair if they object.
    The issue is close to home, she says, since she realized that when she faced sexual harassment at different times in her life, she never learned how to say "no," "stop" or "I don't like this."
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    So now she is focusing on her children, making sure they know how to say no and to advocate for themselves and the rights of others when those rights are being violated, she said.
    "I'll know that I've succeeded if I ever hear that upon witnessing injustice, (my sons) felt infuriated and outraged, not shocked and embarrassed," she wrote.