I thought about tip-toeing around this issue, leaving gender out of it, because I guess this applies to #allchildren, but then I thought screw it. We can’t address an issue if we pretend it isn’t there. Males hold an overwhelmingly disproportionate slice of the perpetrator pie for domestic violence and sexual assault. This is a gender issue. And at the heart of it, I want to raise boys and men who respect females.
I am a feminist and I take the concepts of enthusiastic consent and respect very seriously. I am also the mother of two sons who are going to venture out into this world and a daughter who is going to encounter a whole lot of men out there.
For those of you scratching your head about enthusiastic consent, this is a great article. Basically, enthusiastic consent means ensuring that there is positive, mutual engagement in an activity and frequently checking in for any signs that this enthusiasm has been withdrawn. Simple, right?
When we talk about enthusiastic consent, we are usually talking about sexual activity. And while understanding and respecting consent in this context is the end goal, isolating the discussion about consent to this situation is confusing things. It is being considered too late in the game. Enthusiastic consent needs to be incorporated from the very beginning, so that children deeply understand consent in the broader context.
Unfortunately, we are not modelling the right behaviour. Children are often sent the message that they are not capable of making decisions about their body (It is cold, you have to wear a jacket!), that those in a position of power can control the decisions about their body (You are not cutting your hair short) and that their protests don’t matter (I don’t care if you don’t want to, you are having a shower before bed). To think that these lessons are not carried into the teen years and adulthood when consent finally gets a mention, is naive.
Childhood is a time for children to learn and practise the skills they will need to take into their adult years, and there are lots of opportunities for this to happen. This is what we do to encourage consent, respect and body empowerment in our home.
We encourage enthusiastic consent in all play
Play is so important. It is practice for all our human interactions and relationships. As parents, many of us feel comfortable to step in and help our children read body language in the context of play, which is great!
Enthusiastic consent goes further than ‘yes’ and ‘no’, so in our home we talk a lot about body language. ‘Look at your sister’s body, she has turned away from you in a way that makes me think waving your stick that close to her is making her feel scared.’ ‘Look at my face, I’m trying to show you that screaming that close to me is really bothering me.’ ‘Look at your brother, he was having such a great time before, but the sounds he is making now tell me that maybe he doesn’t want to play that game anymore.’
‘But I have a spirited child! It’s not that easy!’
Some children need a lot of support navigating and understanding consent. One of my sons was very, very physical and escalated to aggression rapidly when he was younger. This was triggering and stressful and I really empathise with parents who find themselves in a similar position. Please remember that children do not learn from being shamed or isolated for this behaviour. Nor do they learn from a construct that says ‘boys will be boys’. Supporting my child through these years meant staying close by almost constantly and helping him to read and interpret the signs that he was missing.
Make no mistake, this is really tough. It is so confronting to watch someone you love and care for in such a gentle way use their body to send the messages they are struggling to communicate. While seemingly every other parent I knew was able to sit back and have a chat, I remember the weight of having to be constantly available. But as I watch this beautiful boy who is now so in tune with his friends and their needs, and also able to assess his own emotional requirements and understand when he needs space, I know that those years were so important.
Understanding enthusiastic consent for kids is all well and good, but getting a ‘no’ is hard for all of us. Because, you know, sometimes you just really, really, really wish that person wanted to play your game too. Helping children process the anger and frustration that comes from rejection is vital. Holding space for your child while they navigate emotions and learn that with time and intention emotions pass, is a process that all children need to experience. Anger and frustration should never be belittled or shamed or dismissed. Those feelings don’t go away. They get pushed to some dusty corner of the subconscious, and what lies in its wake is a massive void where the tools for emotional regulation should exist. And these exact tools are what we want our kids to be able to draw on when they inevitably face rejection as a teen and adult.
Obviously, we don’t sit down with our young children and say, let me tell you about the concept of ‘impaired consent’. What we do instead is help our children interpret situations where something that looks like a ‘yes’ can actually mean ‘no’ so they know what to look out for. You need to be able to freely communicate how you are feeling about a situation to be a willing participant. We don’t tickle in our family which our children will proudly declare to anyone who tries to tickle them.
This is not just a precaution against sexual abuse, but also a way for our children to understand that it is not ok to be unable to communicate how you feel about a situation. We talk openly about this. Many of us will have memories of being tickled as children, being unable to stop laughing despite desperately wanting it to stop. Play is a great way to reinforce with our children enthusiastic consent and the conditions under which it can exist so that this can develop into lessons they take into their teen years and adulthood. Tickling is not one of them. And it is the exact skill set they are going to have to draw on to decide that neither is having sex with someone who is inebriated.
There are no willies or nu-nus around here
We are a body positive household. We use the correct names for body parts for both ourselves and others in place of any cutesy derivatives and we say these terms without any attached shame or embarrassment.
When we use nicknames for some body parts and not others, we are sending the message that there is something ‘wrong’ with the appropriate terminology or some shame that should be packaged with it. The thing is, kids who think of penis and vagina as ‘embarrassing’ words, are not going to use pee-pee forever, and it paves the way for these pet names to morph into other more offensive slang down the line. Kids who are used to the people around them avoiding use of the correct names, are going to be less likely to question why someone is using ‘pussy’ instead of ‘vagina’ later on. I want my kids to question this. I want them to consider the intention behind these words. If children are conditioned to attach shame to anatomically correct names, they are more likely to attach shame to the body part itself and use words that reference them in a shameful or negative way. It is also a safety issue. If your child always refers to his penis by the correct name and suddenly comes home calling it something else, you know to have a conversation about where this new terminology has come from.
How we talk about our own bodies and the bodies and personalities of others is so important. My children hear me talking about my body in a positive way. They hear my husband talking about my body in a positive way. And we talk about the bodies of other people in a positive way. We answer questions about disability and non-conventional body choices without embarrassment or shame and hope that our children grow to acknowledge beauty and ability in all its forms. Because we are all different.
I model setting strong personal boundaries. I communicate clearly the boundaries I have with my body, when I need personal space and when their behaviour is making me feel unsafe. If you are nodding your head, great! However, I am also really interested in how we decide to enforce these boundaries. If these boundaries are fear based, ‘If I hit my mum I will be punished’, ‘if I yell at my Dad, there will be big trouble’, we are not teaching our children respect. Because you cannot teach respect for personal boundaries through fear. Sure, you might get compliance. Your child might follow your wishes if they feel that they are going to be punished or have affection withheld, but the lesson you are actually teaching is that the person in the position of power is in control and can rule through fear and manipulation. One day, your child is going to be the powerful one.
I let my children know when something they are doing is bothering me. I speak to my children with respect, empathy and kindness and encourage my children to do the same by having open conversations about my feelings if they cross a boundary that upsets me. This doesn’t mean that things always go the way I hope. Far from it. In fact, I truly feel like this approach takes a lot longer, is a lot more challenging and looks messier than its fear-based counterpart. But I am ok with that. Essentially, you are giving your child information and feedback, and this can take a lot of trial and error to stick.
When boundaries are crossed, we discuss why this is a problem and how we can navigate this in the future. We talk about the feelings that our children have when they cross these boundaries and let them sit with that discomfort in a supportive environment. When children are young, there are going to be times where boundaries are crossed. Lots of times. But kindness, connection and communication is always the answer and the message.
Bodily Autonomy Is Non Negotiable
We teach our children that they are in control of their bodies and the choices made about their bodies. Importantly, we hold true to these statements. My kids have cut their own hair, dyed their hair, gone through periods of not wanting to brush their hair. They choose their own clothing and what is weather appropriate. They decide when they wash.
This requires a lot of internal work. Sometimes I wish that my children made different choices about their bodies. Sometimes I wish that they made choices that didn’t make us stand out so much in situations where I don’t want the attention. But that is about me, not them. Every time I feel myself wanting to say no to something, I spend time reflecting on who it actually affects. I also make sure to ask myself what message I am sending them if I tell them their desires for their body are not ok. We offer information about why we think something is important when it is necessary and we intervene if their health or safety is at risk. But in situations where they are safe, ultimately our children weigh up their options and decide for themselves. I don’t control their bodies and what they learn from this is that they don’t control the body of anyone but themselves.
We use positive language
We call out language and statements that undermine the strength or capabilities of a gender. ‘You run like a girl.’ ‘That toy is a girl toy.’ Really? What does that mean? Why do you think that is bad? Let’s talk about that.
My kids hear other people when we are out and about using language that they haven’t heard at home and when they ask us about it we don’t just say they are ‘bad words’, we talk about oppressive language, its origin and why their father and I have made the choice not to use degrading words.
With this information, our children are making informed choices about the language they use and its impact on the people around them.
No forced affection
This makes sense right? If you force little Johnny to hug a grandparent when he doesn’t want to, little Johnny might decide later on that he can force affection when he is in a position of power because only his needs matter. Or Johnny might decide that when someone is forcing affection on him, he doesn’t have the power to say no.
Don’t make your kids hug or kiss people. Don’t bribe and manipulate them with statements like ‘give me a cuddle and then you can have your present’. Thankfully, there are a lot of wonderful people out there who have written about this, so if you find yourself feeling really uncomfortable because your children don’t want to show physical affection to family and friends, stay strong and confident that you are making the right choice.
Model strong and healthy adult relationships
I am a big believer in modelling the type of adult relationships you hope for your children, not only with your partner if you have one, but also with family and friends. Foster the same level of healthy communication in your adult relationships that you are trying so hard to nurture in the relationship you have with your children. There is a reason why communication, trust and connection works for parent-child relationships. It is because it is the basis of all healthy relationships. You and your partner are worthy of this kind of love and respect as well.
I am not living in some perfect utopia here. My kids make mistakes all the time. I make mistakes all the time. We are human, we are all still learning. When mistakes happen, we don’t respond with power, control or shame. We have an open and honest dialogue. I don’t want my children to obey out of fear. I want them to respect the people around them and the boundaries they set because they are invested in developing positive relationships. And I want them to be empowered and respect themselves enough to demand the same in return.
When my husband and I went to see Alfie Kohn speak, he asked us all to write down a word that summed up a characteristic we hoped our children would have as adults. I wrote down something unimpressive and forgettable, but I was blown away by my husband’s response. He wrote ‘self-aware’. Doesn’t that perfectly sum it up? I hope that by parenting with this kind of intention, we will send our children out into the world in touch with their own feelings, strong in their values and the control they have over themselves and their choices, understanding of the pillars of healthy relationships, and always conscious of the impact that they have on the people around them.
Have I missed anything? I would love to hear what you are doing to raise kind men.