How to Talk to Your Kids About Celebrity Assault Allegations in the #MeToo Era
My son idolizes soccer icon, Cristiano Ronaldo. So when his name made headlines this week for being sued by the woman he allegedly raped nine years ago, I had to figure out how to discuss the #MeToo movement with my son.
My 11-year-old son, Jack, is a fan-boy of Cristiano Ronaldo. Jack plays right back defense for a New Jersey soccer club. He plays FIFA on his iPad. He's reading a biography on Pele, he re-watches Ronaldo's plays and skills—and tries to apply them in his own game. He has three Ronaldo Jerseys (two Real Madrid and one Juventus). He wears CR7 Nike turf boots.
On October 1, Jack was using an app called FOTMOB on his iPad, it updates users on everything soccer, when he ran into the living room. "Mom, Cristiano was accused of sexual assault and it can't be true! It's impossible," he cried. I was suddenly ambushed with a storm of questions about his idol who tied up the Portugal Vs. Spain game in the World Cup with a hat trick.
For me, this was not another Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Bill Cosby, or Brett Kavanaugh. Ronaldo being sued by Kathryn Mayorga, the woman who says Ronaldo raped her in a Las Vegas penthouse in 2009 and was paid an out-of-court settlement requiring her silence on the allegations, is a whole different ball game.
Suddenly Jack was paying attention to the news. He was personally impacted by this accusation and was not buying that Ronaldo was capable of hurting someone. "Mom, one time he kicked a ball and it hit a kid in the stands and Ronaldo took his Jersey off and gave it to him," Jack told me and then pulled up the video on YouTube. "Also mom, he's a dad!"
I now had to carefully decide how to handle this situation. Everyone parents differently—telling your child to believe a survivor or standby the accused is your call. Las Vegas police have confirmed they have reopened an investigation stemming from Mayorga's 2009 complaint and lawyers for Ronaldo deny Mayorga's settlement claims: "This is manifestly illegal and violates the personal rights of our client Cristiano Ronaldo in an extremely serious way" and is "one of the most serious violations of personal rights in recent years," Ronaldo's lawyer, Christian Schertz, said.
The Juventus footballer is innocent until proven guilty. His accuser said she came out now because of the #metoo movement. "My son pressed why now? Why nine years later? Is she lying, mom?"
According to experts, Jack's disbelief of the news is a normal one for children who are newly introduced to the idea that a celebrity might not be exactly like their public image suggests. "All kids know is that Ronaldo is a super star. But, people are complex and sometimes children just see things as black and white," says Jamie Howard, Ph.D. "He can be an excellent soccer player, but may not be that kind of person in other areas of his life." Ronaldo has publically denied the accusations.
I asked Dr. Howard what to do next. My son has plenty of CR7 gear—he even got his arm painted black and white at a Juventus game this summer. Am I supposed to hide the evidence of fandom? The short answer: No. Dr. Howard doesn't think parents should remove clothing, cleats, posters, or other Ronaldo items in an abrupt or angry way.
"Give your child time to adjust to the news," she said. "Understand your child might be in denial, confused, or angry. After some time passes, ask your child if he feels comfortable wearing his gear in light of the accusation and ongoing investigation."
My conversation with Jack went okay since he's 11 and knows about the birds and bees, sex, and sexual assault. I simply said that a woman is accusing Cristiano of raping her, of holding her down and having sex with her, when she didn't want to. She allegedly screamed out, "No, no, no," I told him.
Then I told him about the #MeToo movement and that maybe she is telling her story now because a lot of women are sharing stories of sexual assault, so maybe she felt safe and like it was time. Jack's face grew serious. He wanted to know if I was ever sexually assaulted—and I was honest: No. Then he told me he feels guilty for liking Ronaldo, to which I said, we have to see how this unfolds. He's not guilty right now, but it's also very important to support women who come forward with serious accusations. Just because we like Ronaldo doesn't give him a pass.
Recently the president of the American Psychological Association released a statement summarizing findings that false claims of sexual assault are very low, between 2 to 7 percent. "The vast majority of women are telling the truth," explained Dr. Howard.
Andrea Barbalich, an editor and writer whose son, Truman, 19, plays collegiate baseball, says parents should tell their kids, "this is an accusation of a terrible crime and right now you don't know if it's true. The police are investigating. You will see what happens."
Dr. Howard also suggests that children age 11+ should have a basic understanding of what sex is, but if they don't there are still ways to explain what sexual assault is. "We tell our kids about secret touch, bad touch," she says. "This is a simple way to explain what rape can be like. Someone is touched in private areas and they do not want to be touched there. If this ever happens, you have to tell someone."
Dr. Howard adds that it's very important to explain due process to your kids. Tell them about fair treatment through the court system. "Explain there is now an open investigation and that authorities are going to collect evidence and do their best to decide if Ronaldo is guilty."
"Sometimes our heroes disappoint us, and it's a difficult thing to understand how someone who is great in a sport or a job could do something so awful," adds Barbalich. "The lesson here, whether Ronaldo did this or not, is that you must never, ever hurt another person. Always be kind. Always treat people with respect. Be the best person you can be."