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Never too early for this wake-up call

Malika Andrews, New York Times News Service Jan 28 2018, 0:38 IST
Tough times: Rachael Denhollander who was victimized by former Former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar is consoled by her husband Jacob after Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison on Wednesday. AFP

Tough times: Rachael Denhollander who was victimized by former Former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar is consoled by her husband Jacob after Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison on Wednesday. AFP

Among those transfixed by the sentencing of Dr Lawrence G Nassar, the sports doctor accused of molesting more than 160 girls and young women, were children throughout the United States. Their parents were faced with a uniquely vexing question: how - or whether - to discuss such an abhorrent sex crime.

Over two weeks, Nassar's very public sentencing hearing ripped through the gymnastics world. Young gymnasts watched their heroes recount experiences of molestation or read comments on social media, leaving parents struggling with how to broach the subject with their daughters.

Any major news event can present difficult parenting decisions. But the Nassar case was particularly fraught because it involved young girls and appalling violations of their bodies.

"It's a tricky situation," Adelia Matson, whose daughter Macy is a Level 8 gymnast, said in a phone interview from her home in San Luis Obispo, California. "I have definitely talked to her about abuse, but she's as innocent as they come as far as a 12-year-old. It's a bit of a balancing act of how to talk to them without revealing too much that they don't need to know yet, but that they know how to protect themselves."

Hours after a judge gave Nassar a sentence of 40 to 175 years in prison, girls in sparkly leotards swung from uneven bars, while others tumbled on the blue gymnasium mats at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. From an elevated seating area, two dozen parents watched their children practice.

Between gasping at falls and shouting encouragement, many parents were asking a variation of the same question: Had everyone seen the latest testimony in the sentencing hearing?

Matson and her husband discussed how they should talk about sexual assault with Macy after Nassar pleaded guilty last year. Another mother said she participated in the women's march with her daughter, but wondered if disclosing the details of the Nassar case would cause her daughter to fear men.

On top of that, parents of older teenagers wondered what their children may have seen on social media that they were not aware of.

"The Olympic team and the elite girls - they follow them on Instagram; these are their role models and their heroes," Kelly Craig said of her 12- and 14-year-old daughters, who practice at Chelsea Piers. "My 14-year-old has read all the statements. When they closed the ranch, my daughter showed me - she knew before I did."

Nassar was previously sentenced to 60 years in prison on child pornography charges. During his sentencing hearing in Lansing, Michigan, over the past two weeks, more than 150 women - including prominent Olympians - spoke about the abuse they endured.

There is no one set of guidelines to teach parents how to talk to their children about sexual assault. Laura Palumbo, director of communications at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said that there was appropriate information to give children about sexual violence at every stage of development.

"One of the biggest misconceptions is that these conversations are too advanced or harmful for children to hear about," Palumbo said. "In reality, the more information that we can give children from an early age about understanding your bodies and your boundaries and what types of touch are appropriate - not only does it give your child that information, it also lets them know that these are safe topics to talk to you about."

Sienna Livengood, 10, had no idea why her idols were in the national spotlight. She worships the Olympic gymnasts so much that in her free time, she is creating a short film about the journey of the Fierce Five, as the 2012 US gymnastics team was called, to the London Olympics.

Sienna's mother, Jen Livengood, said she talked to her daughter about sexual violence in general terms, but had not let her watch or read about the trial. The two of them talk about self-worth and having the confidence to speak up if something isn't right.

"Every parent has to be open to conversation, and not just in sports - it's at church and in school," said Brandy Bauman, owner of Go for It USA gymnasium in Las Vegas and a mother of two. "It's everywhere you are trusting someone else with your child. Our sport is getting a wake-up call."

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