Being a feminist parent means a lot of things. It means, among other things, instilling in our children a sense of equality and social justice, teaching them to be body positive, showing them how to love themselves, and allowing them to speak their mind while also showing them how to be good allies. These days, one of the biggest hurdles for feminist moms is knowing how to teach our children about consent. And beyond that, realizing that feminism isn't just something that we pass along to our daughters, or something that informs how we raise our daughters and what we teach them — feminism, in fact, is arguably even more important when it comes to how it affects the things we're teaching our sons.
At a time when high school football players that rape unconscious girls are protected by their community, prep school students rape in the name of “tradition” and are subsequently given a mere slap on the back, and rape culture is seen nearly everywhere, it’s up to us not only as parents, but as human beings, to make sure we are clear in teaching our children how to protect themselves and others against unwanted advances of all kinds. The fact that 15% of victims of sexual assault are children under 12 makes it clear this conversation needs to begin earlier than many of us may have expected.
As the mother of a young toddler, I know that there are already steps I can take toward setting a foundation of consent for my son. For other parents, here are some things you can do to help your sons learn about consent.
Let Them Know They Are Always In Control Of What Happens To Their Body
Whether it’s what clothes they put on or what foods they eat, it’s important to let them know they control what goes on with their bodies. I mean, yes, that broccoli needs to get in there one way or another, but I'm going to try like hell to make it "his choice."
Enthusiastically Listen When They Say “No” or “Stop” And Act Accordingly
Basically, no means no, no matter how old you are. If you want to teach your son that the word "no" has power — both when he's saying it and when someone says it to him — you have to respect his "no" from a very young age. If he wants to stop me half way through a tickle fight with a resounding, “No, mommy! No more!” then I’ll make sure to back off. And if I don’t want him to throw a toy at me (because toddlers), and I say no, I’ll make sure he understand that it’s important for him to stop as well.
Teach Them To Respect Other People, Including Their Bodies and Property
Ways of showing respect to other people (and their things) include: not touching, grabbing, or picking up anything that isn’t yours without permission, and also not throwing, hurting, or breaking what isn’t yours. Teaching young kids this simple lesson using toys and food first as it may resonate more with them.
Never Use Terms Like “Boys Will Be Boys” And Immediately Shut It Down If It’s Said Around Them
We already know how problematic it is to allow boys to get away with negative behaviours by uttering falsities like “boys will be boys,” so why would we ever say it in front of our own kids? Conversely, were other parents to say that (about my son or any other child, really), I would at the very least brief them with why all that does is enable and even encourage negative behaviour.
Explain The Concept Of Affirmative Consent
Several college campuses have begun enacting legislation for something called “affirmative consent” which basically means that before having sex, you should make sure to ask your partner if this is what they want to do. This concept can easily be taught to younger children without involving sex. Advise kids to ask for permission to play with one another’s toys or if they can take the next turn on the swings at the playground and boom, they’ll get it.
...And That They Shouldn’t Pressure People Into Changing Their Minds (Or Feel Pressured Themselves)
As feminist parents, we teach our kids to accept people’s first response, and also let them know that if someone asks them to a sleepover and they don’t want to, they don’t have to change their mind about it, even if their friend continuously asks. These seem like the insignificant, throwaway moments of childhood, but they are actually the learning grounds where interpersonal politics are first being established.
Give Him A List Of All The Different Ways People Can Say No
This might include shaking their head side to side, not saying “yes,” pushing them away, blocking them from doing something, walking or running away, screaming, staying completely silent, saying “nu uh” or “nope” or “nah”, etc. This will make them more receptive to people’s refusals in the long run.
...And That If They’re Ever Unclear, They Should Immediately Stop Whatever They’re Doing
Some people report being unclear as to whether consent was given, or whether they themselves gave consent. In these cases, teach your child that the best thing to do is stop whatever they’re doing until they’re sure there is positive consent (and if there isn’t, that’s OK, too).
Clarify That Things Like Intoxication And Intimidation Can Result In An Inability To Consent
Ah, yes, the moment our young gents get old enough to learn that "drunk" is a thing that people sometimes are, and that they might be one day. Welcome to this awesome can of worms, kids. So yeah, you have to talk about that in the context of consent as well, because duh. Once they’re old enough (middle to high school age), you might also want to explain other factors that might prevent someone from consenting, including intoxication, disability, fear (being intimidated), blackmail, and age (being too young to understand).
...But That In Some Situations, Like In The Event Of A Medical Procedure, Others Might Have To Do Things To Them They Don’t Like For Their Health And Well-Being
Every time I take my toddler to get his shots, it usually take 2-3 of us to hold him still in order to get it done. I absolutely hate doing it and we try various methods of distraction but at the end, it’s the only way to get him his vaccinations. Once he’s older, I’ll explain that while I will always ask for his consent, when it comes to matters of his health and well-being, I may have to trump his decision a bit in as least-traumatic way as possible.
...Add That A Parent Or Loved One Should Always Be Nearby To Make Sure It’s OK
Also important to explain to kids that medical professionals should only perform procedures once their parents or guardian has given consent for the child, and preferably while we are in the same room and have explained what the procedure will entail. Medical procedures can be pretty scary for some kids so it’s important to clearly communicate what will happen to them in the process.
Always Acknowledge Their Feelings
Make sure kids know their feelings around consent matter. Don’t belittle them for saying no to a pillow fights and don’t get mad because they refused a hug from you but not from dad. It happens. Allow them them feelings.
Encourage Them To Always Speak Up If Something Feels... Off
“Go with your gut” might seem like simple advice, but it’s important in terms of consent. When you’re still unsure whether or not you want to consent, or if a situation is making you feel uncomfortable, it’s important to know to stop it in its tracks.
Expound That Everyone Is Allowed To Change Their Minds About What They Consent To (Even At The Last Minute)
Some folks try to argue that you’re not allowed to change your mind about sex once it’s happening. But if your partner changes their mind, if you don’t stop immediately, that sex is now rape. Look, I get that saying words like "rape" to your kid might feel horrifying, and I'm not saying that I would talk to a 3-year-old in those terms, but rape is horrifying, and for the most part, if we want it to happen less, we need to not dance around the specifics of consent, and what dark shit can occur in its absence. The point is, make sure your kids understand that everyone is allowed to change their mind at any point about anything, whether it’s borrowing your sketchbook, your skateboard, or having sex.
Eventually, Go Over Important Topics Like Sexual Assault, Rape, Slut-Shaming, Body-Shaming, And Domestic Violence
Because they all deal with consent.
...And Add That Certain People Are More At Risk Than Others, And How They Can Be A Good Ally To Others
Including those in the LGBTQIA community, people of color, immigrants, homeless people, etc.