Friday, March 22, 2013

Teaching Kids About Consent (and How Not to Rape)

A lot has been said about the Steubenville rape case this week, and a big part of me wanted to be able to get through this without writing about it. But then I read this post by Abby, an English teacher who boldly faced a conversation about rape with her classroom of 9th graders this week. She took the opportunity to teach them about consent, and I admire her bravery. There are so many things about what happened in Steubenville that are truly, deeply disturbing to me, but one of the things that's getting me most is that the rapists in this case (and many people reacting to the case, including the students in Abby's class before their discussion) seem to have absolutely no idea what it means to get consent from a sexual partner.

This is a huge problem. Major.

I've had far too many experiences of having other people fail to respect my body and the boundaries I've painstakingly constructed around it. I don't want that for Daniel. I want my child to always know that his body is his. That no one is allowed to touch him without his consent. That this is a baseline expectation, not a luxury or the exception to the rule. And that he is expected to show the same respect to other people. Always.

Teaching consent is relatively simple, though I admit that practicing consent with children has the potential to be triggering for those of us who have had negative experiences with breech of consent in the past. Even when it's difficult, it's our job as parents to demonstrate for our kids what it means to respect other peoples' bodies: ask first; wait for affirmative permission; listen for requests to stop; take appropriate action based on what the other person is telling you.

In my opinion, the first step in teaching our kids about consent is teaching them about their own bodily autonomy. And the best way I know to teach about bodily autonomy (and therefore consent) is through lots and lots of modeling. This means practice! Repetition. It means showing your kid that even when you disagree with her, you'll let her make that choice about her body because it's her body.

How do we model bodily autonomy?

Just as when interacting with other adults, we ask for consent before doing anything to the child's body:

  • Consent means letting a pre-verbal child know that you're going to pick her up before you do, and then reading her body language (facial expression, posture, muscle tone, gestures, verbal cues) to let you know if it's what she wants.
  • Consent means talking to your baby while you're dressing him to tell him what you're going to do with his body every step of the way.
  • Consent means that when your toddler says, "No! Put me down!" you put her down.
  • Consent means not requiring your children to hug, kiss, or have any mandatory physical contact with relatives just because it's the "nice" thing to do. Ask your son if he wants to give Grandma a hug before you leave, and then don't put pressure on him to hug her if he doesn't want to this time. It's his choice.

(I hope it's obvious that I'm not referring to instances where a child's safety is in jeopardy. If Daniel is about to run into the street, I protect his body because he doesn't always know how to best do that. When the imminent danger has passed, I apologize for surprising him by picking him up, grabbing his arm or coat, etc. without asking first. Then we have the talk again about how to keep ourselves safe around cars.)

Another way we can teach consent is with practice. Roll playing. Talking it out. Acting it out through play.

Tickling. This is the big one!

“My #banana is leaning over to say, ‘Eat me!’ …
Banana, I’m going to eat you now, OK?”
As an adult, I loathe being tickled because as a child, I was tickled many times until I cried. Tickling is a tricky game because the person being tickled is usually laughing, so it may seem like they're having fun. Often though, the person doing the tickling will not yield to requests for them to stop—especially if the tickler is an adult and the one being tickled is a child. Not OK!

Tickling and being tickled is an exercise in dominance and submission, and in any such play with power dynamics—even when it's not sexual in nature—it's important to:
  1. Ask for consent before beginning,
  2. Establish a "safe word" (or phrase) for a concrete indicator of when consent has been withdrawn, and 
  3. Stop frequently (especially when tickling, as it can be difficult to speak while laughing) to give the other person a chance to either reaffirm their consent or withdraw it.
Maybe this seems extreme for a little tickle session, but trust me: it's not. When you model this level of respect for your children's desires about their bodies (and in turn, hold them to treating your body with the same level of respect) you're teaching them about consent. Go you!

In our family, games of tickle (and similar touching-other-people-for-fun play) start with a question:  
Do you want to be tickled?
May I honk your nose?
Is it OK if I touch your belly button?

We have a set of universal safe word phrases that all three of us use (so they don't have to be re-established each time; that level of planning is better suited—and more fun—for older children), which are:
That's enough.
I'm all done with ____ (being tickled, poked, etc.).
No thank you. I'm finished now. (often accompanied by signing "all done")

This system works well for us most of the time. But just like in life, sometimes someone makes a mistake and crosses a line, and apologies have to be made. It's extremely useful to have the opportunity to make these mistakes in a safe environment with loving caregiver(s) as a child. 

Daniel is still just two years old, so he has moments where he continues with a physical game by touching Jaymz or me in an undesirable way after we've already withdrawn consent. Those moments can be a little triggering for me personally, but we get through them together. When Daniel crosses the line, Jaymz or I will repeat the safe word phrase, "I said that's enough. I'm finished with tickling and I need you to please stop now" and that usually does the trick. Then we have a moment where we remind everyone about the rules: asking for permission; stopping when asked in return.

More often than not in these instances, Daniel is wanting someone to tickle him, which is why he's not stopping tickling the other person. So then we (start from the top and) ask, "Do you want to be tickled?" and the process begins again.

I'm not saying we're perfect at this by any means, but we sure are trying. (And it seems to be working—check out Daniel getting consent from his banana in the photo above!)

The bottom line on consent is: if the other person doesn't give you a resounding, enthusiastic "YES!" then they have not given you their consent. 

There is no reason a child should reach sexual maturity without understanding that he does not have permission to even touch someone else's body (much less rape her, document it, and brag about it) without her express consent.

It's our job as parents to teach him—all of them—how not to rape.

First image adapted from Yes? and No? by Lois Lindemann on Flickr.


  1. I was starting to think we were the only people who use safewords with our kids for things like tickling!! Both my children have male bodies and are showing every sign of being cisgendered so it's always something that's on my mind, trying to teach them how to be responsible, moral men in a society that can be so deeply misogynistic. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective and for laying it all out so clearly.

    I also found Zerlina Maxwell's '5 Ways We Can Teach Men Not To Rape' useful, as long as you've got a link list going.

    1. I think a huge step toward helping our children to be responsible with their bodies is simply being aware of the misogyny and pointing out the injustices and sexism that are inherent in our society.

      It's kind of like knowing about photoshop in advertising: once you realize that the images are not real (that the messages we're being told are not accurate) it's far easier to discern for ourselves what's true/right/just/moral.

      (Adding the link to the list now!)

  2. I love your in-depth description of the respectful way to tickle (sounds funny, but I believe it's actually so important!). We employ a similar method, and I've noticed lately that my almost-two-year-old actually loves to be tickled - probably because he's in control the whole time (we ask before, frequently stop to ask again, NEVER pin him down - he can always move away easily). It's a silly time and an interesting sensation that he can stop at any time. So different from my associations with tickling.

    I'm wondering if you could provide more examples of modeling bodily autonomy. I found myself wishing you hadn't stopped with tickling! There are so many situations, especially with young children, in which we typically overpower our child physically. Do you model bodily autonomy during other activities (getting dressed/undressed, changing diapers, wiping a potty-trained child)? I find the activities I just listed are the ones my child is often the most resistant to, and so I usually overpower him in the most respectful way I can think of, but I often wonder if there's a better way. Since I respect your perspective on tickling, I'm really curious to hear what you do in other situations. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Amy! I have a post in the works which discusses several other ways to model bodily autonomy, so I hope you'll check back for that soon.


Thanks for your comment! I love hearing from you.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...