We need to talk about consent.
It is our job, as parents, to teach our children how to respect their bodies and the bodies of every single person they encounter.
If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed by the thought of even approaching this conversation, it’s not your fault. It’s because our culture sucks at dealing with this. Many of us were never taught how to firmly and consistently define our own boundaries and honor those of others. Many of us grew up watching movies that normalized rape culture, as actress Molly Ringwald of Sixteen Candles fame has acknowledged. (You can read more about her thoughts here and here.)
As hard as it may be, teaching our kids about consent is a crucial first step towards empowering them to respect their own bodies and those of the people in their lives. It’s also a powerful step towards changing the all-too-prevalent culture around rape and sexual harassment that we live in.
Here are a few tips to get you started, and they are relevant regardless of the age or gender of your children:
What you do and say are more important than what you teach. For better or for worse, our children are always watching and listening. The way you talk about and treat your body, or anyone else’s, matters deeply. Do your best to model what you want your children to learn from you.
Model and teach that we don’t comment on other people’s bodies. Ever. There’s just no reason to talk about the shape, size, appeal, ability, or anything else having to do with anyone’s body. If you need to talk about your own body or your children’s, focus on the importance of staying healthy and strong or picking clothes that are a good match for one’s style and comfort. Neither of those observations are about bodies, because we don’t comment on people’s bodies.
Do not insist that your children touch or be touched by anyone, ever. Our daughters have the option of offering a hug, handshake, high-five, or hello as a greeting. While my husband and I expect them to be polite, we never pressure them into a physical interaction they don’t want. I don’t care if it’s their grandmother, teacher, or even me, they’re allowed to say no or no more at any point, without question, and without feedback.
We even have a safe word in our family, from this Dora the Explorer book we read years ago. At any point during a hug, snuggle, or tickle, if the girls say ¡Abre! (Spanish for “open”), we immediately release them.
Teach them the correct names for their body parts. I know, I know, this can get a little twitchy at times, but get over it. Also, if you’re not sure about the correct lingo yourself, that’s ok too. You can learn. I had to text my cousin who is a physician to make sure I was completely clear about the difference between a vulva and a vagina. And yes, it’s totally ok to say words like vagina and penis and anus to your children. Remember, these are just words to them, no different than elbow or forehead. Fine, it’s true that we don’t poop or pee out of our elbows, so there’s that, but the point is that they’re just words to our kids, not complex concepts all wrapped in scary issues like sex that stress us out. So teach them the correct names, and don’t make a big thing out of it.
Be willing to stay in the conversation. You might not know all the answers, and that’s ok, but stick with it. Your children are curious, and if they don’t get this information from you, they might get it from a decidedly less accurate or thoughtful source.
Finally, check out this video. It’s called Tea and Consent and it’s fantastic!