Until this week, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was the third track on a Spotify playlist that I often played for my little daughter, who loves to dance.
She’s barely a toddler, so she isn’t likely to notice the song’s sudden absence; I won’t have to answer a child’s probing questions about the fallout of “Leaving Neverland,” the devastating, four-hour HBO documentary detailing allegations of Jackson’s prolonged sexual abuse of choreographer Wade Robson and former child star James Safechuck when they were boys.
But plenty of other parents are sure to face questions from Jackson’s youngest fans, who might be hearing that a cultural icon is now “canceled,” or wondering why a favorite song is suddenly off-limits. The underlying moral and cultural questions raised by the documentary are hard enough to adults to fully grapple with; how should we have these conversations with our children?
I asked two experts in child psychology and parenting — Diane Levin, a clinical professor of applied human development at Boston University, and Peggy Drexler, a research psychologist and former professor at Cornell University and gender scholar at Stanford University — to share their thoughts on how parents might approach these issues with their children. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Knowing that families might have different ideas about where to draw certain lines (Is it still okay to listen to Jackson's music? What level of detail do you share about the allegations?), what general guidance would you offer to parents who are thinking about how to address these topics with their children?
Drexler: I believe there’s a way to appreciate the art if not the artist, so I think fans can still listen to his music if they’d like. And if it makes them feel uncomfortable, they can stop. But great art isn’t always made by great people, and being famous doesn’t automatically make someone “good,” and I think that’s an important message to relay to kids.
Levin: When we’re dealing with issues in popular culture, I think it’s mostly important that kids know they can bring it to you and that you’ll listen to them and answer their questions. If they ask, “Does this mean we can’t listen to him anymore?” you might say, “Well, I’ve noticed that when I put Michael Jackson’s music on now, it doesn’t feel the same. Should we not listen for a while, and see how that feels?” Working things out together is a brilliant model.
For younger children who might not hear anything about "Leaving Neverland," these conversations might be initiated by a parent if a child asks to listen to a Michael Jackson song or brings him up in some other way; for older kids, they might come to their parents with questions about what they're hearing or reading. How should parents handle those conversations with both age groups?
Drexler: You don’t want to scare kids, but you do want to prepare them. Talking about sexual abuse is like talking about sex: It should be a continual process, not a one-time event, and generally, begin before they spend extended periods outside the house in the presence of someone who is not a parent and definitely before they begin going online. For younger kids, there are books you can read to introduce the topic of sex. For older kids, talk about it at dinner or in the car. It’s a very important discussion, but you don’t have to make a big, formal deal out of it, which can scare kids. Make sure they know there are no silly questions, that they can talk to you anytime, that their bodies will let them know if they’re in an uncomfortable situation and that they should listen to their bodies.
Levin: At different ages, this topic is going to have different meanings. And we shouldn’t just pour all of the information into a child, either. I think we need to start by asking them questions: Have you heard anything about Michael Jackson lately? And if a kid says something like, “Yeah, I’ve heard he’s bad,” we can follow up with, “Okay, so what did you hear?” It’s always about taking the lead from the child and meeting them where they are. Often we try to tell ourselves that we’ll use a few specific sentences to try to explain something, and then we’re done. But the more we can establish an interactive pattern with children around talking about difficult issues and sexual issues, the better it is in the long run.
How do you help your kid process feelings of disappointment or loss in a situation like this?
Drexler: Listen, empathize, don’t make excuses for the person. Guide your child to express their feelings, but don’t feel the need to “fix” them or make the situation better.
Levin: The key is really just to connect, and not tell children the way they should think or feel, but just be open to what they have to say. Ask them how they’re feeling. We can reassure them that most of the people we respect and care about are good people, and that nobody is perfect, and we need to talk about the not-perfect things.
Do you think these sorts of parenting conversations are changing at all in the post-MeToo era, when there's more focus on how we should respond after a public figure has been accused of abuse?
Drexler: I think parents are more aware of the need to encourage conversation with their kids, and to help their sons and daughters understand the idea of consent and why it is important. Parents are not waiting until a kid is pre-adolescent to have the one sex talk. Instead, they’re starting earlier in bits and pieces and helping normalize the topic so that kids feel less shame or embarrassment, which can prevent them from speaking up when they really should.