Like the rest of the world, I am deeply saddened and shocked by the light sentencing of the former Stanford athlete who chose to sexually assault an unconscious woman behind a dumpster after a party. After reading the letter from the criminal’s father in which he asks the world to understand how it has devastated his son’s life, one thought stands out loud and clear:
It is critical that we teach our children consent from a young age.
I have spoken to many people about this as a parent. At first they give me funny looks when I say things like, “we don’t force our children to hug their grandparents to make them happy, because it sends the message that another person’s feelings are more important than our children’s bodily autonomy.”
It sounds crazy the first time you hear it. OF COURSE you hug your grandma when she’s getting ready to leave, or she’ll be sad. That’s what our parents always told us. What alternative do you have?
And the more that you observe the discomfort of children being placed in situations where they are not allowed to consent to what is being done to their bodies, the more they think about the idea of teaching and modeling consent. And then this Stanford rape hits the news, and I get a flood of messages and emails and phone calls:
“OKAY, YOU’RE NOT (completely) CRAZY! Now how do I teach my very young children about consent? I don’t even know where to start!!!”
So today, you get a much longer blog than normal, because so many people are asking for ideas and looking for answers. If you’re hearing these things for the first time and they sound nuts to you, it’s okay. Think about them a little. It might seem like too much to do all at once, and that’s okay, too: pick one thing that resonates with you and implement it, starting today. Bookmark this blog and come back to it when you are thinking about consent. Each time you read, pick a new thing that you feel like you can implement.
1. Allow children to choose when and whom they hug
At the end of your next visit with Grandma or a good friend or whomever they are expected to hug, instead of saying, “give Grandma a hug!” try asking, “do you have a hug for Grandma before she leaves?” If they say no, say, “that’s okay, I have enough hugs for both of us!” And you can hug Grandma yourself and let her know how glad you are that she visited. With this small action, you have let them know that they can consent (or not) to intimate physical contact. You can then ask if they’d like to give Grandma a high-five, which is a way for a child to give a physical goodbye without having their whole body touching another person. If they say no to the high-five, cheerfully reply, “maybe next time! Okay, let’s wave goodbye to Grandma as she leaves!”
2. Stop when they say stop
This one sounds obvious, right? Except when was the last time you played tickle fight, or watched Uncle play really rough with your kids, and they were laughing but saying STOP!!!! and the play continued until the adult tired of it? Laughter can be a sign that someone is having fun, but it can also be a sign of nervousness or discomfort (ever laughed at a really inappropriate time? That was your anxiety finding an escape route!).
Try playing a consent game with your kids: play tickles with them, but every time they say stop, stop immediately! Most likely they’ll continue giggling for a few seconds, then yell, “OK GO!” and you can resume the tickles. If they don’t, ask them, “Can I tickle you again now?” and only resume the tickles if and when they verbally consent. Teach them that when they ask for consent, a non-response is the same thing as saying NO. Then let them play back with you. If they don’t stop when you say stop, hold their hands and explain how important it is to respect when someone says stop. You are teaching them that words are powerful and consent is revocable at any time!
3. Explain to them why you must override their consent in some situations
The doctor’s office is a great example. “I know that you do not want to have this shot. You are afraid it will hurt. And it might hurt for just a second. But it is my job as your parent to keep you healthy, and I’m doing my job by ensuring that you get this shot to keep you healthy.” And then you give them some choice in the matter. “Would you rather hold my hand and lay your head on my shoulder while you get it, or would you rather I sit in this chair over here?”
4. Talk to them about their bodies matter-of-factly
It can be hard to say penis, vulva, scrotum, vagina, breasts to your children. Heck, sometimes it’s hard to say them to other adults! But knowing the proper terminology for body parts is an important part of being able to give consent. When we reduce this to “private area” or “bathing suit area” it becomes confusing for children. No one refers to the elbow as part of the “sleeve area” or the big toe as part of the “shoe area,” and the genital areas are no different. If you banged your elbow on a table but could only tell someone you hurt your sleeve area, it would be really hard to identify what you were talking about! Imagine your child came home and told you another child touched their “bathing suit area”…your course of action would change if you found out they meant belly button (hey, sometimes it’s covered by a bathing suit!).
This is also key when it comes to their ability to tell you if they have been touched inappropriately by an another person. Adults who touch children do not use the anatomically correct terms for the body parts. If a child who has always referred to her vulva comes home talking about her “muffin,” it is time to have a discussion about where she learned the word muffin, that the proper term is vulva, and that she can talk to you about it. “When you say muffin, are you talking about your vulva? Who says the word muffin? It’s important that you are the only one who touches your vulva right now. If someone else has touched your vulva, you can tell me; I won’t ever be mad at you for sharing that information.”
Teaching children that penis is a body part just like elbow, that breasts are a body part just like knees, enables them to have important conversations with you as they get older. It’s really no different from teaching them not to fart or belch at the table, and not to say fart loudly in the middle of the grocery store. Trust me, they’ll learn some sort of words for their body parts and use them; wouldn’t you like to be the one to teach them and decide which terms they use?
If you are uncomfortable just skimming these words in your head, let alone saying them out loud to your children, it can help to start by reading a book. It’s easier to read the words on the page than to come up with them yourself. As your children begin to use the words themselves, it gets even easier, and you create an environment in which they know they can come to you first with their questions.
5. Model consent in your daily life
Children learn the most by watching you. If they observe you shove the dog, or whisk the cat off the table forcefully, they begin to see that force is occasionally acceptable. Except they are children whose front brains are still developing, and they lack impulse control and fully rational thought. So they shove other children, and they knock kids down on the playground when they’re in the way, and pretty soon they try it out on everyone they meet, because they don’t know how else to find out which occasions it is acceptable to use force other than to test it! (Children are experts in scientific method).
I hope it goes without saying, but if they witness another adult shove you out of the way, hold you down, or grab at your clothing (or you doing these things to another adult), they learn that these are occasionally acceptable behaviors. And they begin to test them out. And they learn that sometimes they get away with it. Or they allow other people to shove, hold down, and grab at them, because they observe that this is the way relationships work sometimes.
If you are receiving physical contact when you are not consenting to it, please do not hesitate to call and talk to someone at 1-800-799-7233 . http://www.thehotline.org/
Had Brock Turner’s parents taught him just one principle, that no response means no consent, perhaps he would have stopped making physical contact with the woman who passed out in his presence and instead sought medical help for her. Teaching consent begins at home, and it begins early. I hope this post helps you empower your children to understand that they are in charge of their bodies and only their bodies!