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Gov. Cuomo’s resignation offers parents a teachable moment on boundaries | Expert Opinion

Cuomo’s resignation might be the end of the matter for him, but for parents it could be the beginning of an important conversation with their kids.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at an August 2 press conference. (Don Pollard/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo/TNS)
New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at an August 2 press conference. (Don Pollard/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo/TNS)Read moreDon Pollard / MCT

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation for improper sexual behavior toward women offers parents a reason to celebrate some of the progress we’ve made and gives us a teachable moment for today’s youngsters.

When Cuomo said in his resignation speech that “there are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate,” he unwittingly paid tribute to the parents, teachers, faith leaders, coaches and others who planted the seeds for this change by encouraging children to speak up when they were abused.

The lesson that bullying and unwanted touching is unacceptable has resonance for every parent and child. Cuomo’s resignation might close his career in the governor’s mansion, but for parents it could be the beginning of important conversations.

For example, a 2018 national study on sexual harassment and assault found that 81% of women and 43% of men reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime. One important step in ending this is for communities and institutions to continue to support parents in rearing children with age-appropriate, medically accurate information about sexuality and relationships, combined with each family’s values. Parents can work to rear children who understand the following:

  1. Everyone has the right to set and maintain boundaries;

  2. A person’s sexual arousal is no one else’s concern;

  3. There are consequences to breaking rules, no matter who you are; and

  4. Nothing entitles anyone to take advantage of or bully someone else.

Setting boundaries. From giving our children choices about which relatives they kiss to teaching our kids about consent, these are topics a parent can bring up with their children from preschool on. Teachable moments can pop up before a visit from a relative, before a party or date, or when joining a team sport.

Sexual arousal. An important fact of life that young people need to understand is that sexual arousal is an autonomic reflex, and means no more than getting goose bumps when cold. Too many kids confuse arousal with emotion, or blame another person for their arousal. As Cuomo learned, finding someone attractive or being aroused by that person gives no license to act.

Breaking rules. Seeing you driving 70 mph in a 55-mph zone gives your children the message that it’s OK to break some rules. Your kids need to know that breaking rules has consequences, and they should choose to do so only if they can accept all the consequences.

Bullying. There is no position that children or adults can hold that grants them the right to harm anyone else, physically, sexually, or emotionally. Key to raising children who do not bully is learning to understand the effect their behavior has on others, or empathy. Empathy is not natural in young children and adolescents and must be learned.

Cuomo’s situation reminds us that a behavior he perhaps thought of as harmless left his victims feeling scarred, but it also clearly shows that no one is exempt from rules.

Cuomo said: “In my mind, I never crossed the line with anyone. But I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn.” Kudos to every parent who reared a child who helped redraw that line; let that serve as inspiration for people parenting now, who wonder whether their kids are listening.

Janet Rosenzweig is a sex educator and the author of The Sex-Wise Parent and The Parent’s Guide to Talking About Sex. She teaches at the Fels Institute of Government at Penn. Follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter.