I have started and restarted this post at least half a dozen times. Each prior draft felt like a persuasive essay entitled “Why You Should Teach Your Kids About Consent.” Which is why I have deleted each of those drafts.
Because you are already teaching your children about consent.
Whether you realize it or not.
When you tell little girls that the boy knocking her to the ground is only being aggressive because he likes her. When you shrug off that aggressive behavior by saying “boys will be boys.” You’re sending messages. Loud and clear messages. But likely not the ones that you want to be sending.
If you’re already teaching your children about consent, why not do so mindfully with a few tips on how to introduce the concepts of bodily autonomy, boundaries, and healthy relationships as soon as possible? Because the best way to keep our children safe is to teach them how to be safe. And the time to start teaching them is now.
- Seek your child’s consent when it comes to physical affection. And respect it. We started this one as early as we could. I am not quite sure the age. We ask for kisses and hugs. And tickles. And snuggles. Often, we get a “yes.” Sometimes, a “no.” And sometimes, we get a “no,” followed by an exacerbated child who doesn’t understand why he’s not getting a hug. The key is to listen. Sure, there are times when Mommy really wants a kiss goodbye at daycare drop off. But, my son’s body is his own, and he deserves to have his consent, or lack thereof, respected. These lessons in his own bodily autonomy will also translate to respecting the autonomy of those he wishes to be physically affectionate with. I’m already seeing the positive results! Recently, he’s begun lifting up my skirt. I say to him something along the lines of “that is my skirt and this is my body, and I do not like you touching me that way.” He responds with “Mommy’s body. No touch.”
- Don’t force your child to be affectionate with others. Grandma. Uncle. Auntie. Grandpa. Everyone loves the little ones, and everyone wants to shower them with affection. That does not mean that your little one wants to be on the receiving end of all of that affection. I’ve seen it with my own family – an older relative excitedly runs up to my toddler, their happy smiling face inches away from his, demanding a hug or a kiss. And, while the family member means well, it is obvious that my son is not thrilled by their close proximity or demand for affection. The horrified look on his face. The way he turns his head to avoid eye contact. The way he backs away from the person attempting to touch him. Even if he can’t say “no,” he is showing that he wants nothing to do with this. Which is why, when these kinds of acts occur, I make every effort to stand up for my son. “Do you want to hug * fill in the relative’s name here *? No? That’s ok. You don’t have to.” It might leave Great Aunt Doris feeling bummed out at missing a hug from her favorite toddler, but my priority as a mother is to protect the bodily autonomy and feelings of my son, not my great aunt. I also hope that he’ll remember this lesson: how he felt when someone tried to force affection on him and that his “no” was respected. Even when he was saying “no” to someone he loves.
- Teach them about their anatomy, including the proper terms. This one might seem strange, but it is important. It is important for our children to be able to explain if a part of their body was touched or hurt. Being able to say the words “penis” and “vagina” enables children to give accurate descriptions of what is happening with their bodies. It also removes some of the stigma around these body parts, so that they are comfortable talking about them if they need to. This may lead to embarrassing moments when your 18 month old announces to a crowded public pool that he has a penis. But, if the only negative consequence of teaching your child the proper terminology is that they use it accurately, in public, loudly, then that’s ok by me.
- Don’t banish pop culture. Embrace it. Let me explain this one. As our kids get older, they will see movies, listen to songs, and read books that will send them questionable messages. These messages can be scary, and the knee-jerk reaction can be to ban them. But – and hear me out on this one – why not use those examples as teachable moments? Let your child watch, listen, or read. While you watch, listen, and read, too. Then, talk about it! The only reason I read the entire Twilight and Fifty Shades series were so that I could have knowledgable and intelligent conversations with my students and friends about how Edward and Christian are abusers. That’s right, I said it. Abusers. Ain’t nothing sexy about an unhealthy relationship. Understanding what my kids were reading helped me to engage them in conversation. I could ask questions. I could point out facts. And I understood what they were taking in by reading those books. My toddler may not be ready for these lessons, given that the extent of his pop culture knowledge is Peppa Pig and Llama Llama Red Pajama, but I’m ready to teach them when the time comes.
- Lead by example. We parents are in many different relationships. We’re wives, we’re daughters, we’re sisters. These relationships often have a physical aspect to them. We hug our brothers. We kiss our mothers. We hold hands with our husbands. Modeling appropriate and safe affection is important for our children to develop healthy concepts of what affection can look like. Because physical affection, when wanted and welcome, can be a wonderful thing.
If you have any additional tips on how to teach consent, I’m always eager to learn more! Feel free to share them below or over on our Facebook page.