In the aftermath of the guilty verdict in Steubenville, Ohio, parents should be taking this opportunity to ask themselves this painful question. But what parent can even contemplate that a child they love could so callously disregard someone's basic human rights? At the same time, the media is filled with experts chastising parents for not being involved with their kids and wanting to be a friend instead of a parent.
All this may be true, but what is equally true is we never acknowledge how difficult it is to accept our children as possible perpetrators of abuse or bystanders who will "let" it happen---and then refuse to come forward after the fact (as in Steubenville). It doesn't even occur to a parent that their child could threaten to kill or beat the victim for coming forward.
As a parent and educator, I don't want to do it either, but we have to face facts. There isn't a community in this country where girls (and boys) haven't been sexually assaulted. Everyone knows someone who has been raped, even if they haven't told us. We may have been sexually assaulted ourselves. But there's a culture of silence around these horrible acts, so when it's our turn to teach our children about these issues, we don't even think about it until it's too late. And even if we did want to talk about it, we don't know how.
We must talk to our kids as possible perpetrators and bystanders. And our advice about what to say has got to go beyond, "How would you feel if this happened to your mother or sister?" First, no one has any idea what the perpetrator's relationship is like with those women in his life, but it's not a huge leap to think he doesn't hold a great deal of respect for them. Second, these boys have dehumanized their victim. In that moment, they don't care.
Parents need to know how to talk to our children. From eighth grade on, here's one possibility:
"You may see things that are really messed up, and it'll be a real struggle to know what to do. It could be what a guy is doing to another guy, what a guy is doing to a girl, or a girl is doing to a girl. It could be at school, in the locker room, at a party, or in someone's house. In the first moments when you realize something's wrong, it's really easy to not believe what you're seeing or to convince yourself that it's not serious. Other people can try to convince you that nothing's wrong. Trust your gut. Or think about what I'd think if I could see what's happening. If you can't speak out in that moment, I'm asking you to leave the room and call me or another adult you trust. Sometimes these things happen so fast that it's hard to really process what's happening. You can always tell me, and I can help you figure it out."
For the parents who are caught in the aftermath, unless your child is being criminally accused of rape or some kind of assault, please don't get caught up in definitions. You don't have to call it rape and you don't have to invoke the legal system to say unequivocally to your child:
"I love you. You are my son. That doesn't take away that your actions have hurt another person and you need to be held accountable. You will, in time, come to terms with what you did. Through that process I will be by your side. But I will not deny what you have done and I will deeply reflect on how we got to this place. Anytime you would like to talk to me about this, I will be here."
I know this isn't anything parents want to talk about with their son. I wish things were different. But our sons live in a world where all this is possible. We have to be ready to stand for what is right. The only way that's possible is if we find the words that matter to our children.