My 8 year old asked me about rape.

tippity tap tap tap *pause* tippity tap tap tap

So went the sounds of me Facebooking, hunched over the laptop while awkwardly standing up, one foot through the doorway and in to the kitchen so that I felt that I was successfully multi-tasking. And then came these words:

"Mom? What's raping?"

The boy was draped across the couch, taking the metal shin guards off his Christmas robot and snapping them back on again, over and over. My Facebook-drunk mind whipped in to rapid sobriety. I knew that this had to be a side-by-side couch talk. My 5 year old daughter was preoccupied with Elsa and Anna in her room, and I was grateful for the Disney soundtrack that would keep her out of this particular conversation.

It seemed like not so very long ago that I was trying to assuage my little boy's nervousness about bad guys, assuring him that there are very few legitimate "bad guys" in the world, and mostly it's a case of a normal person making bad decisions or being in compromising situations.

I looked him in the eye and asked him how he heard about "raping". He told me that he had heard it at the dinner table at his dad's house, his older step-brother had mentioned that he heard a kid at his high school had been raped. When he asked the grown-ups at the table what that meant, he wasn't given any answers. I said, "Well, I think if you're old enough to ask the question, you're old enough to hear the answer." 

It isn't really about age, anyway, though, is it? Lord knows I can have conversations with my 5 year old that I can't even have with my own maternal predecessors. It seems more that it's about knowing the person you're speaking with that determines if the conversation can be had, not age, and I knew this boy before me so well. 

So here I was with his question. "What is raping?" I was trying not to let my mind linger on the news that a kid may have been raped at his step-brother's high school. I tried to not let my mind go to the places that would bog down my heart with sadness and anger, the emotions that would grab a hold of my tongue and stifle what I really needed it to say. So I kept it simple.

"You know a little about what sex is, right?" He nodded. "Yeah." 
"Well sex is a really cool thing that grown-ups get to do when they're super in love with someone. It's something that they agree to do, together. Rape is when one person forces someone else to have sex, or touches their sex parts against their will. It's when one person wants it, the other person doesn't, but they make them do it anyway."
"You can't force people to do what they don't want to like that," he frowned.
"I know," I said. "It's an incredibly horrible thing and people who rape go to jail for it."

He didn't need to know that not everyone goes to jail for it. That more often than not, rapists get away with it. And they do it again. That even famous people have done it. He didn't need to know that not only are there indeed bad guys out there, but sometimes it can feel like they're everywhere. But he did need to have his question answered.

He was frustrated, hung up between a perception of not-quite-ready little kid, and the reality of an inquisitive and astute big kid. "Well I understand that! Why wouldn't they answer me when I asked?"

When you're one half of a split family and you cannot speak for the other parent, you have to choose your words like they're red and green wires attached to a ticking bomb. I don't know why his dad wouldn't answer him. But I tried to imagine myself at a dinner table, with other kids present, and thought about how I would have reacted under the same set of circumstances.

"I don't know why they didn't answer you. Maybe there were other little ears around, ears that aren't yet ready for these answers. Or maybe they were caught off-guard and didn't know how to respond. I will always do my best to answer the questions you have for me. But I do want you to know that they're not always easy for me to say. And they might be even harder for others to say. So if you have a question, and you are having a hard time getting an answer, then you can ask someone else. Like you did tonight with me."

And that was the that. The rest of the night was spent with a movie in the living room, songs before bedtime, and the normal yelling "GO BRUSH YOUR TEETH!" across the house. There weren't any nightmares. No panic attacks over bad guys. The world didn't explode. In fact, I don't think the world has exploded yet from mere dialogue. Pretty sure that's a fact.

So far he hasn't stumped me. But I bet that day's not far off. I'd love to hear from you in the comments on the tricky questions you've been asked by your children, and how you've responded. Would you respond differently if asked again?


Juliana said…
In the car today NPR was doing a story on young girls being kidnapped in India and forced into either household Work like child care or into the sex trade. I didnt realize my 8 year old daughter was listening until from the back came, "Mom, why do they only kidnap girls?". Her question was difficult to answer, not because she couldn't take the answer, but because I didn't know a good one. The story focused more on child care servitude than anything else, but how do I say boys aren't good at that when her father does great? How do I explain that maybe boys are too valued for a kidnapping to go unsolved? I instead said I didn't have a good answer for her good question.
Oh Juliana, that is a tough one. Maybe you could approach it from an historical perspective. It's something that will come up time and again, right? Historical gender roles, that is. Maybe understanding that historically it has been the girls and women who have tended to the house and home, who have raised the children, etc. But now we live in a time where that is no longer the case. Girls can be what they want to be, women can live lives that they want to live, not those dictated to them by history. But there are some people in some parts of the world who don't like that change and are trying to force girls and women to not only abide by their historical roles, but taking it even further and kidnapping to make them do it. They do this because they're losing the battle against the change, and they hate it so much that they act violently. But for those who commit such horrible crimes against girls and women, there are so many many more people who are advocating for girls and women, encouraging them to explore their minds and their talents, and to not be confined by the history of their gender. If it were my conversation to have with my daughter, and someday it very well may be, I wouldn't position it as a value statement of boys v girls, but rather put it in that historical context and let them know that it is the kidnappers who are on the fringe, who are NOT the norm, and who are resisting positive change in the world to cling to an old way of being. Good luck, Juliana!
Such a great post, Kelli. It was similar to the situation I had during the lockdown after the Boston marathon bombing, when we were in lockdown and glued to the TV all day. There was a lot of talk about bad guys that day, with my then 5yo, and even with my husband sitting right beside me, we didn't always have matching answers to my son's questions. Sounds like you handled all of this really well.
Unknown said…
I don't think I could have possibly come up with a better response. I remember asking my mom the same question when I was around your son's age, and I must have really caught her off guard because I'm not sure that her answer really fully answered the question (to her credit, though, I'm sure in the moment she tried her best!)
Oh Cheryl! What a tricky situation! I guess I'm in a strange situation in that the other parent isn't here for us to have conflicting responses. We do, just not in the same moment.
Bev, at least you were comfortable enough to ask your mom about it! I bet you the majority of adults like us didn't have the confidence to approach their own parents with tricky questions. I know I certainly didn't. So I looked to my worldy older sister, which may or may not have been a source of accurate information. :)

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