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Talking To Children About Sexual Harassment And Scandals In The News

August 19, 2013 12:59 p.m.


David Peters is a licensed family therapist with a private practice in Mission Valley.

Related Story: Talking To Children About Sexual Harassment And Scandals In The News


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition, no matter how the allegations against Mayor Filner are ultimately resolved we are sure to hear more about the allegations in the media. The accusations against Filner and other politicians can be confusing for kids who listen to the news. Driving your car, your whole family could hear something like this.

(Audio recording of Donna Frye)

FRYE: When I received credible first-hand evidence of more than one woman being sexually harassed I could not not act.


(Audio recording of KPBS reporter Sandhya Dirks)

DIRKS: The real news of the press conference were the lurid details of alleged assaults grabbed breast beneath the bra, a tongue forced down a throat.


(Audio recording)

NEW SPEAKER: Anthony Weiner was forced to resign from his US congressional seat in 2011 for sending sexually explicit photos and messages to women online.

NEW SPEAKER: And as we learned yesterday that behavior didn't stop. Weiner is now confronting his fixing allegations.

CAVANAUGH: Parents might want to ignore that question stories like this raise but my next guest says it's better to help your guests understand difficult topics. I like to welcome my guest. David Peters is a licensed family therapist with a private practice in Mission Valley. Welcome back, David.

PETERS: Always good to be with you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now we will open our phones to take your calls are you telling about children and we have questions about sexual questions and that is asking you things that you find hard to answer you can give us a call with your questions or comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727. So, David, at what age do kids start to listen and try to understand new stores?

PETERS: Well frequently before parents expected, children as young as 6,7 and 8 can cut by the attention on television and radio if they are old enough to listen to music that you play for them or watch a cartoon that you play for them, they are old enough to see on television and hear on the radio some things that you would rather them not hear.

CAVANAUGH: The initial reaction from parents might be shocked for their kids to ask a question about a sexual oriented headline that they've heard about a politician.

PETERS: Could be the effect could be even greater with children acting out, playacting sexually harassing event on the playground. That is very possible. Children listen to the news, they talk with one another, then they play out what they know the story to be and there is a big concern right there for the kids.

CAVANAUGH: So what would you say to a child if they ask about this?

PETERS: The children are asking about what is happening and what is sexual-harassment. This is a great opportunity and is a teachable moment. We've got an important story, an important lesson, there's good guys and bad guys and there's a moral tone here. You can teach them about personal boundaries, about respecting others, you can teach them what sexual harassment is and whose fault is that you can teach young boys about self-control, about maintaining the corn, you can teach your teenagers also about boundaries and self-control and being responsible for our behavior.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let listeners know that we are taking calls during the segment so if you have a question or comment about how to talk to your kids about some of the things we've been hearing in the news lately the number is 1-888-895-5727. That is 1-888-895-KPBS. David, should you say anything if your kids don't ask you?

PETERS: It all depends if your children are the type to watch the television or if you sense they are listening it would be okay to ask you understand what you are listening to or what are you hearing. With kids in 6th 7th and 8th grade they are knowing the story. There's no doubt about it it's worse to ask is whether to ask them what are your saying from singers: today think asking your kids questions about what they think and what they are is important because they may have heard some really wrong information they may have heard things that are actually not true and it's important to discuss that also. But it's important to find out what their feelings about it are and do they have questions. Let them ask you questions.

CAVANAUGH: How much detail should a parent get into when they are trying to explain something, some of the allegations that we've heard, some of the sound clips we've heard they are pretty I guess it would really depend on how old the child is, right?

PETERS: It definitely depends on how old the child is and I always as a rule of thumb try and include as much detail as your child is capable of understanding. And each child is different. Some children are two or three years more advanced than others but you probably know your kids well enough to know what words do they know, what do they know about sex so far. But, this is an opportunity to find out what their concern is and then to express to them what your concern is for their behavior or for their safety. In other words we can talk to the kids about their safety if someone did this to you I would want you to tell me because I wouldn't want you to be art this way I wouldn't want you to be embarrassed so you can always tell me if someone tries to touch you in the wrong way or say nasty things to you in public. But as the kids get older and they become potential perpetrators and teasing one another and being inappropriate and you're teaching them to respect others boundaries. You are teaching them what is right, what is wrong and how to know when someone's cross the boundary or how to intervene if someone else has crossed a boundary on someone.

CAVANAUGH: What if children are asking about why the Mayor or some other public figures doing the things they are reportedly doing. Should you try to explain why, or should you just say I don't know.

PETERS: I like to give as much explanation is possible. You can say you know some people don't have good control over their behavior. They think of things that might be fun for them and they don't think of how it might hurt other. And maybe you, Johnny Roselli have thought of things you might want to do for fun and you realize that would hurt somebody or make them feel bad and you stopped your self. Unfortunately some of the women who worked at the Mayor's office are saying that he makes them feel better, that he does nasty things, that he's touched him and wrong ways, that he said nasty things. You can go to details such as well yes some said he reached inside their clothing and how would you feel if somebody grabbed you and wouldn't let go and reached inside your clothing. Would that be bad yeah that would be terrible, yeah and I want you to come and tell me if that happened and certainly that is not something you would ever do to somebody else, right? So it's a wonderful teachable moment. There are details that get a little bit more graphic. Your teenagers are used to speaking far more graphically than you ever dreamed so there's no reason to hold anything back there. With children say under sixth-grade you want to be cautious but still they know what their private parts are, they know where the off-limits line is or they should known, and it's a time to be able to teach and talk about it.

CAVANAUGH: It's very interesting the sort of spin you are putting on is the context you are putting this in because I think a lot of parents are really sort of horrified when they hear certain types of headlines, when they realize their children are going to be thinking about and perhaps having questions about certain things they would rather that not happen and what you are saying is you know, it's really not a bad way to introduce some very important topics.

PETERS: Seize the moment. This is real life, we cannot shelter our kids from your life, it happens, good things happen, bad things happen. When bad things happen it's our turn to teach to explain to kids and teens what the world is like how to take care of themselves, how to take care of others you know if we teach kids only when they've done something wrong when we are punishing them we are missing half the fun of it really the enrichment of being a parent is being able to sit with your kids and teach them about life, teach them about safety, what it means to be respectful to one another and your kids will eat this up.

CAVANAUGH: How do you react as you say when kids start to joke around about topics like this? What, I mean I guess you're not supposed to come down too hard on the kids but you want to stop it, right?

PETERS: Certainly so, sexual harassment is not funny and the challenge here is on the evening talk shows it is funny. It is being made fun of by Jay Leno and David Letterman etc. and young people are hearing these jokes. But it's important to be able to say you know I hear them joking about it but you know what if it happens to you it's no fun and if you see it happening to someone else, that's not funny either. This is serious. This really hurts people. With teenagers or even with children I like to have a mixed group if there are several friends over and there are girls and boys over to let them talk back and forth and asked the girls how would you feel if some guy forced himself on you wouldn't let go and put his hands in your clothing let her order and discuss be expressed in front of your son so he can see, you know this isn't funny this is bad, this does hurt people. So here's this opportunity also. You know it's a terrible incident, we don't wish this on anybody but with terrible instances this is a time to teach.

CAVANAUGH: Now David, you say teenage boys especially might benefit from some guidance on sexual harassment. Why is that? Is that partly because of our culture?

PETERS: Yeah it is our culture and it's because of the ever-increasing testosterone level in a boy's body which he doesn't know how to handle and we don't give him an owner's manual to work with. And you know, with her teenage boys if we don't teach them, if we don't draw boundaries, they can become little perpetrator some cells. It happens with great frequency on the playground and on high school campuses and it is really important to be talking about it in detail. To be talking about where those boundaries are, how do you control your own impulses. What we have is a grown man who is not controlling impulses even when it's against his own interest and there's countless people like this in our society. And so we don't want our son or your daughter to be one of those who can't control their impulses this is the time to talk about the damage done and where the line is. You may flirt with someone, but if she gives you the wrong face, it's time to back up. That means you've already crossed the line, backup, don't say anything more even apologize maybe that was offensive, I'm sorry.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with David Peters. He's a licensed family therapist with a practice in Mission Valley. We've been asking for your calls 1888-895-5727. One caller couldn't stay on t he line. But they said this is not an issue because kids don't pay attention.

PETERS: Well unfortunately I hear all kinds of things in my office when the kids come in and the parents leave. Kids have their own little world. About the time of say, fourth grade and fifth grade, kids begin to build their own society separate from the parents and they talk about things, they show each other things, they will take your friends on tours through the home when you're not looking and they know where everything is hidden, and to suggest that maybe your three-year-old or your four-year-old or five-year-old doesn't know, but your eight-year-old and nine Iran probably has heard something if you keep the radio on or the TV on if they are watching the news at the same time you are and on the playground all kinds of news gets poured across from one child to the next and misinformation happens, two.

CAVANAUGH: Is this not just sexual issues that can be talked about but say your kids might have questions about the legal matters that they are hearing about like due process and things like that.

PETERS: Certainly. So teenagers are in age when her talking about what's fair what's not fair what should be done what should be done. Denial happens. You can have say a group of guys say well, that didn't happen, they are just talking, they just don't like him, that some and you can question how do you know it didn't happen do you think this never happens have you never seen a guy harass someone at school and then we talk about we know when someone is guilty how do we know when someone is innocent and the question of presumption of innocence until proven guilty, this is a standard a bedrock of our society and our legal system and we want to be able to talk about that also with those old enough to understand. But then there is this great line of what is legal and illegal and how many people do you have to ascend before you leave office and now we are getting into the fine details teaching the complex discussion of what's legal and illegal is different from what's moral and immoral and different from what's appropriate and inappropriate and all these areas impact our lives.

CAVANAUGH: Now as you say, David, you're using these headlines and these stories to teach important lessons to children. But I'm wondering, do you think the media goes overboard at times that it is irresponsible and perhaps you know, typing some sexually oriented scandals?

PETERS: Well you know, sex sells, scandal sell. So you get a lot of attention paid to it on the other hand I'm less a professional judge of politics and media has admitted a lot of people have been hurt. We have 11 women and it gives us doubt, it gives us a lack of confidence in the Mayor. And with that undermines credibility. And power.

CAVANAUGH: Let me take a call, David. Peggy is calling us from Pacific Beach. Hi, Peggy, welcome to the program.

PEGGY: Hello, Maureen. I am so glad that you brought up the judicial right and wrong and the guilty or innocent part that is one of the points I was going to bring up, and the other point is how media reports things. Media loves to report the salacious things and talk about he is bad. Well, maybe some actions are bad, but we need to differentiate, and this is a learning tool for parents and children that we do bad things sometimes, but we are good people. So to differentiate between actions and the person, this good guys bad guys thing has totally gotten out of hand.

CAVANAUGH: Okay Peggy let me get a response from David on that.

PETERS: I'm so glad that you brought this up because it's really important. In the real world good people do bad things. Our families, good people do bad things. We ourselves are good people that sometimes do bad things and it is a gross simplification for our kids or for us to separate the world into good people and bad people. This destroys a a lot of social contract, it brings about gross misunderstandings. Nobody wants to be labeled a bad person, the enemy, but in the media we do like to set up good guys and bad guys good girls bad girls, whatever and the fact is some very wonderful people some wonderful politicians and leaders in our countries history have done bad things. And to talk about how we are all capable of doing bad things and each of us is responsible for learning through this also now we have brought the sense of morality, we brought the moral lesson here it is for all of us to learn, not just to find who is a bad person. It is to find am I being the best person I can be.

CAVANAUGH: I have to end it there. I want to apologize for the people still left on the phone. These segments are somewhat short and I'm sorry we didn't get to your calls. I've been speaking with David Peters, licensed family therapist. Thanks for the conversation.

PETERS: I look forward to another.