Why We Talk About Consent With our Toddlers
Consent. Control. Desire. Do these words have any place in the life of a three- to five-year-old? Can we teach the word “consent” in developmentally appropriate terms?
The recent Stanford rape case and letters of excuse from the defendant’s parents tell me that we may need to be more explicit in our teaching. Maybe it’s similar to teaching, “We do not steal.” Maybe it means we need to be firm with consequences and generous with blessings.
It is my job and joy as a parent — to teach and model how we protect ourselves from the deception that tells us we deserve something, some intimate part of another person that is clearly, not for a moment, never, really ours.
So it goes back to the body. In our house, we shower together. We use this opportunity to call body parts by name to teach that their bodies are their own. Like their voices and minds, my son and daughters have ownership over their body. We talk with our almost-six-year-old about who may touch their body, and how/when it is appropriate. They rule their bodies and they must be in charge of their minds.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network recommends teaching children the accurate names of their body parts as the number one step towards preventing sexual abuse. The nation’s largest anti-sexual-violence organization, RAINN, (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) also advises that every parent teach correct body terms, as children will have the voice and tools to use should an incident occur.
They also advocate that parents need to speak with their children about boundaries. Just like it’s not okay for anyone to touch their body in the wrong way, your child does not have the right to touch anyone’s body without permission, without that person wanting to be touched. This is teaching consent. Easy peasy, yeah?
Last night, a close family friend confided that my daughter had recently touched her breast, saying “boob” while laughing. We have to talk about this. This is a five-year-old girl who means no harm, but touching someone else’s body, especially private body parts, can be disrespectful and embarrassing to that person.
I know my daughter is curious and sees me nursing her one-month-old sister. She wants to be a baby again and she wants to grow up. She knows how to be mature and speak about the body, yet giggles and mimics her preschool friends. I see the reasons for this new behavior, but that doesn’t make it okay. It certainly requires correcting.
Last year, my husband and I learned that our daughter had been pilfering candy. She was a pirate stealing a bounty every night. We discovered scores of candy wrappers hidden under her pillow and under her bed. She tearfully counted out the wrappers and had to match that to the number of days until she’d be permitted candy again. (Answer key: 30 pieces of stolen candy=30 days until anything sweet may be eaten again).
I recognize that culture starts here, in our home. Every time another rape case is in the news, I remember with sadness and resolve just why we need to be wholly respectful people. Childhood is a foundational time. I’m not going to later write letters or stand in court, excusing my children for taking someone’s voice, their dignity, their body, and their worth. Now is my shot at raising loving people who protect other’s hearts, bodies, and minds. There’s more than candy on the line.
It’s time, I say, to review who we want to be. It’s going to take unpacking the old phrases about how boys may act when they like a girl. It’s going to take throwing old, rotten stuff out and assessing our beliefs and what we teach. It’s going to take the fierce love that sends kids to a time-out step, and conversations that probe for the heart of why our child chose a certain action.
It takes an understanding of self-restraint, respect, seeing others like brothers or sisters or maybe lifelong friends — even when shirts are low and skirts are short. Even when we’ve had too many beers, especially then. When we just “wanted it” and when we thought we deserved something more than what was being offered.
A person’s character is reflected in the light and in the dark, sober or drunk, and at any age. Our children will grow and choose whether or not they respect or simply take. It starts here, now, and probably when they were even younger. Now’s our shot.