Before I say anything else, I am going to warn you – this article is raw. It’s emotional. It’s personal. I am sharing a part of myself, a part of my story that I have only shared with a small, tiny group of people that I know personally in my “real life”. I never planned to share this on here. I had stuffed this part of my life deep down in my heart, hoping I wouldn’t have to share it, especially not so publically. Hoping it wouldn’t impact the way I see others, and praying with everything in me that neither of my children would experience this. That their world would somehow be different. Even after making the choice to write this article, I still don’t want to share this so publically, so openly, leaving me so deeply vulnerable in a way I am so utterly uncomfortable with, but…
My experiences are a part of my story, and I’m not going to share the details, my story, or the specifics of the ways in which I have been impacted. I will say me, too though. Me, too in a way that should never happen, never be okay, and in a way that should never have been normalized to begin with.
Even though I am shaking, crying, and so utterly terrified of putting this out there, this article, and these words are important. It is important to understand how disgustingly common this is. How normalized it is.
It is important to understand that our world, this world that our children live in, contains this ugly thing. It is important to understand that we can put in the work to change this world. To make it more beautiful, to make it safer. Not just because our children deserve better, but because we deserve better. We can do better than this.
When I first saw “me, too” out there, I wasn’t going to say anything, but I’m scared. I’m nervous for the future. For both of my children, and for your children. The heartbreak caused by this problem can be all encompassing and I hope that even by taking these small steps and consciously thinking about this problem that we can help to break this cycle. So me, too. In a public, scary, and oh so vulnerable way – me, too.
How to Teach Young Children About Consent
I know are a reader of this blog, there is a high likelihood that you are a parent, a caregiver, or an educator. The reality is that when we are caring for children, the way in which we interact with them shapes their worldview. This is not a shocking statement, right? How we treat them, how they see us adults treating each other, that becomes normal for them. They learn from our behaviour, from the things we do and what we model more so than even what we say.
This leaves adults in a very powerful position. We have this gift and amazing potential to impact not only the children who are directly in our lives at this very moment, but society, future generations, as well as the types of adults these children will become. This is an incredible responsibility.
It is one that my husband and I take very seriously. Because of my own experiences, consent, bodily autonomy, and the word “no” have been consciously present in the way that I parent my son and daughter.
Teaching consent to all children
My son is 5 years old. My daughter is approaching 1 year old. When it comes “no”, when it comes to teaching about safe touch, these lessons are NOT for my daughter only. It is not my daughter’s responsibility to avoid becoming a victim. It is the responsibility of parents (and caregivers, educators) to teach ALL of their children about safety, about consent, bodily autonomy.
It is not enough for me to teach my daughter that it’s okay to say no. I owe it to other mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, other people, to teach my son to do no. I owe it to you. But even that way of thinking is part of the problem. Here’s the thing…
ALL children need to be taught how to SAY and DO no!
It is not enough for me to tell my daughter that her body belongs to her. It is not enough for me to tell my daughter that she can always say no. I owe it to her, I owe it to your daughter, I owe it my amazing, capable, loving son to teach him that HE can say no! I owe it to my son to understand that he has the strength, the basic human good, the capability, the knowledge, the ability to DO no. And vice versa.
My daughter needs to understand that doing no also applies to her. My son has to know that he has just as much right to say no, stop, I am uncomfortable, just as much as my daughter.
We need to teach all of our children about bodily autonomy because they are strong, capable, kind, and smart individuals who we trust to have the capacity to act in a way that demonstrates basic human decency.
Teaching daughters to say no is only one part of a complicated and difficult problem. We must trust our sons and daughters enough to teach them that they are capable of respecting someone else’s body. They must be aware of all parts of this reality.
Preventing sexual harassment and assault is not just about empowering girls
Something that I am sad to say I have heard said is: “just put her in self-defense classes to prevent this” or “if she wasn’t dressed that way” or “he shouldn’t have been there.” This framework of what the victim should have said or done differently is at the core of the problem. As long as we as a society put the responsibility of preventing a crime onto the person to whom it happened, we will never be able to eradicate (or minimally minimize) the frequency with which it occurs.
One of the problems at the core of how we view consent as a society is thinking about what victims should have done to avoid becoming victims. Instead, it is time to take charge and think about what we can do to prevent a rationale of entitlement to another person’s body. It is never okay. No, it doesn’t matter that she didn’t take self-defense classes. It doesn’t matter that her dress was too short. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t say no at first. Our bodies are our own, and that is how it should be. Period. No excuses.
When it comes to our children, the reality is that they can also become victims (or perpetrators). Victims of sexual crimes are not exclusively women and girls. Perpetrators and not only men and boys.This is an uncomfortable, horrifying, emotional thought, but we have to understand that this is the world we live in and we need to teach our children better than this reality. Talking about the right to say no, and having a conversation about consent needs to happen with both our sons and daughters. They both need to understand that all of these things apply to both of them.
Teach the Importance of Consent
1. An open conversation about the scary things
Of course, this depends on the age your children, but it is important to talk about what was just explained above. Open conversations are important when it comes to parenting more generally – teaching your children that you trust them and that they can trust you. This is an uncomfortable conversation for many people, but these things should not be assumed.
Unfortunately, we need to talk to our children about sexual assault, sexual harassment, good touch, bad touch, and consent. We need to tell our children that if someone says “No” they stop. Immediately.
2. Protecting their ownership of their bodies with family, friends, and strangers
Sometimes, I fear that parents may give children a conflicting message about affection. What do you do when a relative asks your child for a hug? Aww, come on, just give grandma a hug! She missed you so much! Just give aunty a cuddle! Grandpa wants a kiss!
Especially around the times of holidays or relatives, we haven’t seen in a while, it’s possible to just ask your child for compliance, hopefully making your own discomfort of hurting your loved one’s feelings ease. The problem with this is that we are setting a confusing standard for our children in two ways:
- It is okay to demand affection from others. They are obliged to give it.
- My body does not belong to me. Anyone can have a hug, kiss, etc. Someone else (adult/caregiver/relative) decides what I should do with my body.
What I Do Instead
The way my husband and I handle these situations is pretty straightforward. We say to our children “Do you want to give her a hug?” We can see whether our children are happy or uncomfortable with a situation. Because we have already discussed that they are not obligated to give out affection, my son is pretty clear about when he wants to or doesn’t want to give affection to others. I still reinforce that he is in charge of his body in these moments and tell him “you can give grandma a hug if you want to.”
We had basic conversations about this from as early as I can remember. This has made him very verbal and open about his willingness to give hugs, high 5s, kisses. It’s put me in somewhat awkward situations at times.
For example, if someone asks Y for a high 5 and he doesn’t want to, there are a few things that may happen. Sometimes – tells me he doesn’t want to, sometimes I see he is uncomfortable and say something myself, or he will say “No” and he will go to do something else.
We have always respected his no. If someone asks him for affection and he does not want to give it, there is no “come on, or just once, or please for mommy”. The situation is done. Period. No questions. If the other person does not let it go, I say something along the lines of “He doesn’t want to.” and I change the topic.
There is no middle ground on this. My child is not obligated to give hugs, high 5s, kisses, or cuddles to others. This is one very powerful way to teach our children about consent, bodily autonomy, and respectful ways to go about asking/addressing affection.
It is important that children understand that they are not obligated to hug/kiss, shake hands or show affection for others. Think about it, if someone wants YOU to give them a hug and you don’t want to, will you still do it? Can you imagine being coaxed, pressured, coerced into it? It shows them that if we want physical affection, it is ok to take it without considering the feelings and desires of the other person.
This isn’t about being mean to grandma, but it is about teaching our children that no one EVER is owed affection/touch. It is about teaching them that they are in control of what happens to their bodies.
I am not saying here that grandma wanting a hug is creepy. It’s not that grandpa asking for a cuddle is inappropriate in general. It can be that Y just is engrossed in play and doesn’t have time for it. Maybe he’s overwhelmed because there are many guests at one point. Maybe, he just doesn’t feel like it right now, but later will ask for a cuddle himself.
The message here is that our children have a say in who they allow to give them hugs, cuddles, kisses. This sets the expectation for them as they grow up that
- It is NOT okay to demand affection from others. No one is obliged to give it.
- My body belongs to me. Anyone can have a hug, kiss, etc. I decide what I should do with my body.
3. No applies to me
Since we are on the topic of children saying no to affection, I also want to add that everything I wrote above applies to my husband and I, too. If I ask my own children for a hug or cuddle and they do not want to, I let it go. It’s the end. It is not their responsibility to give me affection.
A child should NEVER be forced to give (physical) affection to an adult
…even to me, even to their parents.
In the most extreme of cases, expecting children to give adults affection sets them up for a dangerous situation where they may fall victim to sexual crimes. They need to understand that saying “no” applies not only to others their own age, but adults, as well.
4. No, stop
The topic of inappropriate touch is one of the reasons that I am very cautious with using words like “stop” or “no” when talking with my children. For my family, we have worked very hard to make sure that our children understand that those words are non-negotiable. They are used sparingly and they mean that we listen immediately if Mama or Daddy use them. They mean danger and that the situation is serious.
This is of course within reason. Obviously, if my son asks if he can buy $3,000 worth of lego, we will answer his question with no. Common sense applies here. When it comes to discipline, there are many ways to talk about problems and situations, and we can do this without using “no”.
My point here is that my children need to understand the seriousness of using these words both when an adult uses them and when they use them. For example, if my son and I are having a tickle fight, if he says stop, it stops. It’s done at that moment. His no is powerful and it means something to me. I model the behaviour that I expect from him. If someone says no, it’s done.
5. Respectful care moments from birth
You can begin teaching bodily autonomy even to babies by modeling certain behaviour. The way we think about care moments with babies can come from a place of respect – respect for their bodies, their needs, and their autonomy.
From the birth of both children, we have worked hard to be aware of how we talk to them. When it comes to diapering, for example, I point out the problem calmly to my children before beginning the care routine. I wait for acknowledgment, and in this way, as much consent as you can get from a non-verbal child. I wait for eye contact, a smile, a look, some sign that my children are aware of what is happening.
I don’t just sweep up Natasha from playing to check her diaper. I communicate. I show her in this way that I respect her as a person. We try to communicate. This sets a standard.
I recently wrote an in-depth look at how we handle care moments for our baby, where you can read more.
Look guys, I’m not saying that if you do diaper changes differently, that you are setting your children up to be victims of sexual assault and crimes. What I am hoping this shows is a way to think about consent, moments of care for our children, and how we view their bodies. Yes, we need to change that diaper, but how we approach it can already help to ingrain the idea of bodily autonomy. This is what matters – my daughter and son must understand that their bodies are their own and no one else’s. As caregivers, parents, educators, we have the power, the capacity, the responsibility to teach them this.
We all deserve so much more
The sad reality is that these conversations are necessary. We must empower our children. We owe it to each other, to ourselves, to our children. I am educating my children so that they can be just a little bit safer in this scary world. I am educating my children so that yours can be just a little bit safer.
I am sharing this with you and breaking the silence because our children deserve to live in a world that is safer than this. Because your family deserves more than this. Because I deserve more than what happened to me.