These conversations need to start early.
Melissa Wardy, a Girl Scout troop leader and mom in Texas, is outraged. Three of her six Girl Scouts, ranging from nine to 11 years old, including her daughter, were sexually harassed while selling programs at the recent Sun Bowl. According to Wardy's viral Facebook post, grown men suggested the girls be their girlfriends. They were haggled with over the price of the programs and called "pushy." They were also called "bitch" as well as microaggressions "honey," "baby," and "sweetie."
"Why do I think it happened to my girls? Because men felt they were free to do it, full stop," Wardy tells Parents.com.
Teaching girls—and boys—about consent
In the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and instances like these, not to mention the decades of sexual harassment modern women still have had to face, Girl Scouts of the USA is urging parents to talk to their kids on the topics of consent, boundaries, and respect. Right now.
In a blog post, the empowerment and leadership organization says these problems start earlier than most parents think. "More than one in ten girls have been catcalled by age 11, and approximately 60 percent of girls across grade levels have dealt with gender-based harassment," Andrea Bastiani Archibald, PhD, Chief G.I.R.L. & parent expert at Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA), tells Parents.com. "It's not surprising that these experiences challenge a girl's self-esteem and general well-being."
Age-appropriate discussions, Dr. Archibald says, should begin as young as preschool-age, for both girls and boys. "With children that young, there's no need to use the term 'sexual harassment,'" she says. "Instead, I would start by talking about what it means to respect our own bodies and others' bodies, too—this means not touching someone without their permission, and also knowing that no one is allowed to touch their body without their permission." Plus, stress using our words, not our hands, to communicate.
For older kids who are exposed to the news, you can use it to open up your own conversations about appropriate behavior, unwanted touching, and speaking up if you experience it. "As parents, we want our children to hear from us on these topics, especially when the subject is so challenging," Dr. Archibald says. "Let her know how proud you are of girls and women banding together to support each other on this important issue."
When talking to girls about sexual harassment, other key messages to get across: It's never your fault, if it feels wrong you should tell someone even if you're not sure it "counts" as harassment, and you should always prioritize your own well-being over being nice or polite when it comes to standing up for yourself.
"I encourage parents to teach girls to trust their guts on relationships," Dr. Archibald says. "If something doesn't feel right, we need our daughters to know they can come to us and that no topics are off-limits."
Be the change you want for your kids
Start by being aware of the way you act and speak around your children. Don't tell your daughter a boy is teasing her because he likes her—if he really likes her, he shouldn't tease. And don't suggest to your son that masculinity equals aggression. "Let your children know this isn't just an issue for girls and women—it's an issue of respect that affects all of us," Dr. Archibald says.
- Related: How to Deal with Bullies
Although these discussions can make us feel uncomfortable, it's important they happen early and often. "Parents shouldn't avoid such conversations or suggest that these are 'adult topics' and shut down their children from asking questions," Dr. Archibald says. This could make kids feel that talking about these issues is taboo, and cause them to be less inclined to speak out if they witness or experience it. "We really do want them to come to us for our values and our answers," she says.
Wardy says although she wishes it hadn't happened, she's gratified by her Girl Scouts' response to their #jrMeToo moment. "While I am upset, but not surprised, my Girl Scouts were sexually harassed in public, I want to be very clear that I am extremely proud of them for not accepting being spoken to that way and for speaking up about it," she says. "As a society we need to give girls the space to use their voices, believe them when they tell their stories, ensure them they did nothing wrong—and then we need to turn to the boys and men in our lives to teach them better and demand better from them."