Twenty years ago, when I was a Gender Studies major, long before my children were born, I had already started thinking about the great honor and responsibility of teaching my kids, daughters and sons, about consent. I was imagining a future when boys and men know the importance, and understand how to listen to girls and women’s words, as well as the silent language of our bodies. I was hoping for a future where girls and women think our voices and opinions mean something, and we are willing to speak up, because we know we will be heard. I was committed to raising children who know that adults are supposed to keep you safe, never hurt or trick you. I imagined those children growing up to be adults who know when their partners are treating them with respect, know how love is supposed to look, and teach their friends and partners, who might themselves have been hurt or taught differently. These days, I am fortunate to have a son and a daughter. I take seriously the responsibility I set for myself all those years ago, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to teach kids how consent works.
I think many adults are afraid to talk about, or maybe even think about, consent as it relates to our children. That’s because adults tend to assume our own adult context, especially as it relates to violence or sexuality. We are remembering perhaps three or four decades of experience, some of it scary and painful. Our experience has been a valuable teacher for us, but it’s not what we need now. When we are talking with our children, we need a clearing for who they are right now. They don’t know about all that awful stuff you’re thinking about. As with everything, start with the child. What are their words, thoughts, experiences? That’s the context of this conversation.
We have opportunities to teach the fundamentals of consent every day, all the time, working within the framework of young children’s experience. When one two year old goes to grab a toy from another two year old, we can intervene and insist that the child ask for a turn, rather than grab. If the other child refuses, we can help the first child hear the “no”, and stay with them in their frustration and disappointment. We can help name those feelings, validate them.
When some children want to play a chasing game, and they invite other children to play by chasing them, we can ask those children to say if they want to play. If they say “no”, we can turn back to the kids who want to chase, and affirm, “They said they don’t want to play this right now. That means we have to stop”.
When an adult tickles a child, and the child says, “stop!”, through their laughter, we can amplify the child’s voice for the other adult to hear, by saying, “He said ‘stop’. Stop!”, or by confirming with the child, “You said ‘stop’; do you want this to stop?”, and hold space for the child to answer. We can insist that the adult listen to the child’s “no”.
We can show over and over, day after day, that when you say, “no”, “stop”, or “don’t”, about your own body, people, even grownups, have to listen. That’s the rules. That’s the standard, and anything short of that is not okay. Children, people, need this as the baseline for what’s appropriate treatment of their body. Each person is in charge of their own body. That’s true for tiny toddlers, on up to any cognizant adult. I make the choices about what happens to my body. I have the choice to give or deny permission for any kind of touch.
Now, as parents and caregivers, that can feel at odds with our mandate to care for the fragile, sensitive bodies of our children. We have to insist on unwelcome interventions, from administering medications to diaper changes, hair washing to teeth brushing. Our touches are not always welcome. My kids tell me indignantly, “I am in charge of my body!”, and I answer, “You’re right, you are. And I am in charge of your health and safety”. I really like this wording about our partnership, because children need the assurance that adults are the ones responsible for keeping them safe. A child should not feel like they have to make choices about how best to keep themselves healthy or safe; it’s too big of a weight, for someone just learning impulse control. Children are happy and content when they know their grownups are going to make sure that they are well and cared for.
Conversely, when a child knows that they are in charge of their own body, and adults are supposed to be in charge of their heath and safety, I think that lays the groundwork for that child being able to recognize the problem if an adult ever seems to be in violation of these principles. If a child ever encounters an adult who seems not to adhere to these standards, we want that child to know that it’s never their fault, that the adult was wrong, and a trusted grownup is the person who should address it. I want to affirm that at every opportunity.
While I am always looking for ways to make space for variety and diversity in gender expression, I do think that the experiences of boys and girls result in two very different messages about the relative value of one’s voice and opinion. From a young age, our culture is sending messages to boys (especially white, middle-class and wealthy boys) that they can expect to get what they want a lot of the time. They grow to expect that they can probably negotiate past an initial “no”. It’s part of how privileged people are raising our children, intentionally. It serves people well to believe that we can talk others into agreement, whether we are negotiating for more dessert, a better grade, or a raise.* But that makes it all the more critical that we interrupt that mass culture message with the caveat that each person is in charge of their own body, and that when someone says “no” about their body, you have to stop.
Girls, on the other hand, receive messages from an early age that indicate that we ought to get used to compromise. We send this invisible but unmistakable message without being aware of it, in our assumptions and actions. We apologize all the time. We do a disproportionate amount of housework and childcare. We assume doctors and pilots are male, and nurses and flight attendants are female. We have specific, derogatory language to describe women who appear too ambitious, too assertive, too powerful. Children, boys and girls, are immersed in this cultural poison since before they are even born.** They hear us. It’s our job as thoughtful caregivers to interrupt this message, too. We need to tell them that their voice is important, too. They are in charge of their bodies; they should feel empowered to assert that right, and expect to be heard.
Every day with a young child is another opportunity to practice. Every day, we get another chance to allow our children bodily autonomy, and tell them in words that they have it. We get another chance to demonstrate that even adults are supposed to listen to them about their own bodies. We have the chance to affirm that we are there to keep them safe and healthy. Do this every day, and build the future where those principles are a given.
*Not all cultures raise children with this set of messages, for many reasons. People who have been granted fewer advantages, economically or racially, for example, have a different set of rules that their children need to learn in order to be safe. Those rules are so critical for children to understand that a more directive style of parenting can seem more beneficial. But that’s a story for another time.
**Boys and men are being poisoned, just as girls and women are. This same set of insidious, systemic messages tells boys that they aren’t allowed to feel their feelings, express tenderness, or make less money than a female partner. It marks men as in some way insufficient if they choose a traditionally feminine role, in career, in love, or in life. And there is no way to measure up. In essence, males are being told all their lives that they are not good enough, not real men. Patriarchy is as damaging to men as it is to women.