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?”
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:
- Ask for consent before beginning,
- Establish a "safe word" (or phrase) for a concrete indicator of when consent has been withdrawn, and
- 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.
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:
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.
- Want to know what else you can do to stop rape? Read these 21 (not-that-easy-yet-possible) steps to end rape culture from Juniper of Crazy Dumbsaint of the Mind.
- I also like this one by Zerlina Maxwell: 5 Ways We Can Teach Men Not to Rape. (Thanks for the heads up on that one, eggsandbakey.)
- And in case you have been living under a rock and don't know about the Steubenville case (and subsequent victim-blaming and overwhelming sympathy for the rapists in the media), this post from Bonnie at This is a Woman has a ton of links in a sort of timeline.