commentary

(Los Angeles Times )

September 8, 2003

Talking to Your Child About Kobe

by Mark A. Schuster

What you say about the case of the basketball star accused of sexual assault depends on your kid's age and his or her knowledge of sex.

A librarian recently told me how she was caught off guard by her 9-year-old daughter's questions about the Kobe Bryant case. "She asked me why everyone is mad at Kobe, and she also asked what adultery is," said the librarian. "She doesn't even know what sex is, and now I've had to deal with adultery. I wanted to prepare myself before having to talk about sex."

Confused children are asking their parents questions about the Los Angeles Laker basketball star, who has been charged in Colorado with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman. Bryant has said he is not guilty of the assault charge, but he has acknowledged that he committed adultery.

As a pediatrician who conducts research on helping parents talk with their kids about sex, I've been asked by worried parents what to tell their children about the Bryant case.

If your child asks about Kobe, first take a deep breath. You survived Monica and Bill. You can survive this one too. Take this opportunity to have a conversation with your child. What you say will depend on your child's age and what he or she already knows about sexual matters.

Before you answer, ask your child why he or she thinks everyone's mad and what adultery means. Your child may have misconceptions that you'll need to correct, or he or she may understand a lot more than you anticipated.

If your child is young and doesn't know about sex, you might simply say: "Kobe broke a promise he made to his wife. He said he was sorry, and she accepted his apology. Have you ever broken a promise? Did you say you were sorry? Do you think people should forgive mistakes? Do you think there are some mistakes that are hard to forgive?"

Talking about sexual assault may be trickier. You can say: "A woman says that Kobe hurt her. He says it isn't true. A court is going to help figure out who is telling the truth."

If your child already knows about sex, you can be more specific. If he or she has learned about good touch-bad touch, you can tie that in with your answer about sexual assault.

With teens, the conversation will be more involved. They know what sex is. They may have had it, and if not, they probably know a classmate who has. Surveys have shown that one in three freshmen and 60% of seniors have had intercourse.

If you haven't shared your sexual values with your child, now's the time. As with younger kids, get your teen's thoughts first.

If your son says adultery is no big deal and you disagree, tell him what you think and why. If he says he thinks the woman wanted to have sex, discuss that possibility and what it means to be falsely accused, but also discuss what it means to be raped and how difficult it can be to get people to believe you.

This is a good time to discuss that "no" means "no"—both sons and daughters need to learn that lesson. They also need to know how to get out of a situation in which someone is pressuring them to have sex. Your daughter can say that she's not feeling well or that she's expected home soon.

And your children should know that if someone uses physical force, they might not be able to get away—if they can see the situation developing they should try to avoid it.

When a girl tells your son they should go back to her house because her parents are away—but he's not ready for what she has in mind—he can suggest going out for a meal or a movie instead. It's a lot easier to prevent having to say "no" than to actually say it.

Your conversation doesn't have to dwell on the negatives of sex. After all, sex is one of the great gifts of life. That's an important lesson too, whether you believe sex should be saved for marriage or experienced in high school.

But this isn't all about sex. Take the opportunity to discuss the presumption of innocence, human frailty, hurting someone you care about, taking responsibility for your actions, feeling betrayed and forgiveness.

Is it still OK for your child to idolize Christina Aguilera or Tiger Woods or J.K. Rowling? Sure. Heroes are a good thing.

Perhaps the most important lesson of all about heroes is that they aren't perfect. If you think that's a hard lesson, there's an even harder one they'll learn eventually—that you aren't perfect, either. Remember that how you answer their questions about Bryant will shape their response to you—their first hero—the one whose imperfections they discover all too quickly as they grow up.


Dr. Mark A. Schuster is a senior scientist at RAND and an associate professor of pediatrics and public health at UCLA. He is co-author, with Dr. Justin Richardson, of "Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They'd Ask)."

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on September 8, 2003.