Teaching Consent: We Can Do Better

The last few months have been a whirlwind of media reports about sexual misconduct, harassment and assault. Every day we hear of another celebrity or politician accused of doing unspeakable things. While I’m glad women are coming forward and exposing these men (pun not intended), I’m disappointed to see so many articles outlining ways women can prevent these situations. Instead of telling women to just avoid harassers and take self-defense classes, we should expect men not to harass.

This is why I work every single day to teach my son about consent. Obviously at age seven, it’s not about sexual consent, but more about teaching him the importance of “no” and how to pick up on nonverbal cues that his wrestling/tackling/touching/etc. isn’t always wanted. Like a lot of older brothers, he enjoys aggravating his sister. He pokes her or pushes his feet into her on the couch, or gives her a too-enthusiastic hug and ends up tackling her to the floor. Sometimes my daughter plays rough right back, and they end up giggling together. But sometimes? She Is. Not. Having. It. She’ll glare at him or tell him to stop it. And if he doesn’t stop right away? That’s when I step in. “No means no,” I remind him. “It’s only fun if you’re both having fun.”

My husband is great at modeling the “no means no” behavior. He wrestles with the kids and chases them around, tickling them until they can hardly catch their breath. But the instant they say “stop,” he stops. Usually, the kids are disappointed and ask why he stopped. “Because you told me to stop, and no means no. Do you want me to keep tickling you?” He gets their consent and the fun continues.

With my daughter, we focus on using her words to say what she wants (or doesn’t want). We tell her that it is OK to say no. Just because someone else wants a hug or wants to hold hands, if she doesn’t want to, she can say no. A good friend will understand. We tell her that her body is her body, and she can choose what she does with it.

Britt wrote a great piece on consent and modeling healthy behaviors last year that I strongly encourage you to check out. I agree with everything she wrote about not forcing kids to show physical affection, even when it comes to giving Granny a hug.

It horrifies me to think about how my kids are growing up in this world with the serious threat of sexual harassment. How old will my daughter be the first time she is catcalled? (And we women know that it’s going to happen, right, because haven’t we all been whistled at from across the street or honked at by a passing car?) Will she know what to do if she is grabbed by a stranger? Will my son speak up if he sees a friend or coworker behaving inappropriately at school or work? Will he remember these lessons we are working so hard to impart and treat women with respect and dignity?

I know we can’t stop telling our girls how to defend themselves. As current events remind us, sexual misconduct is everywhere and seems to be practically unavoidable. But remember, mamas, we can make things better for the next generation. We teach our boys everything they know, from how to throw a baseball to how to keep their pee in the toilet. We CAN teach our boys how to treat everyone—men and women—with the respect we all deserve.

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