As parents, we’d all love to believe that our children understand consent. Whether in sexual terms or simply sharing toys, we work to teach them. But look around. Our media feeds brim with stories of women echoing, “Me too.” In a country where 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime? There’s a great deal of either misinformation or willful blindness toward the number of men who are Harvey Weinstein-esque sexual predators. Some are men whose families never truly taught them that they aren’t entitled to whatever their desires demand.
As an assault survivor, I wrestled with how I would talk to my children about consent. Should I bring up sex early with them? Or should I begin with discussions about consent in areas that are actually pertinent in their childhood lives? I opted for the latter. And I began as early as three with my son (who is now eight).
We have a motto in our house that has universally addressed consent: “Respect my choice.”
When his sister doesn’t want to be tickled any more and says no, and he persists? She says, “Respect my choice.” And he knows to stop immediately. When she won’t stop pestering him in his room while he tells her he just wants some alone time? He says, “Respect my choice.” When I have told him no to something he wants to do? I remind him, “No means no. Respect my choice.”
I don’t force them to give hugs to people. And I don’t perpetuate the myth that boys tease my daughter because they like her. Conversely, when my daughter told me the first week of Kindergarten that she was chasing a boy on the playground to make him be her boyfriend, I reminded her that no means no and to respect his choice. She can’t force anyone to like her. We’re talking about trusting our instincts and using our voices when something feels off or uncomfortable. And instead of body shaming their curiosity about their own genitals, I use it as a starting point. “Those parts are just for you. They are special. When you are in your room, you can explore them all you want. But no other person needs to see them except for the doctor.”
Have we talked about sex yet?
Yes. But only when my son asks right now — and only offering the answers to his questions. Nothing more. Nothing less. What we have talked more about is entitlement. He, nor anyone else, is entitled to anything in this life — not a thing, not a privilege, and most certainly not another human. I’ve talked with him about how his words and his actions carry the weight of consequence — even if those words and actions come from a place of benevolence. We’ve talked about the importance of our own bodily autonomy, and how that also means not euphemizing body parts with cutesy words.
If we can’t muster the gumption to call the parts by their name, then how can we expect our children to respect their importance?
We cannot be naive enough to assume that our sons will always know right from wrong, especially as it relates to their hormonal desires. And waiting until they are well into their teenage years is far too late to begin the tough conversations. It is our job — as mothers and fathers — to lay the groundwork in these critical formative years to teach our children consent. We don’t have to jump right in. We can do it in age-appropriate ways that will serve as the touchstone for the tougher ones later down the road.