As the mother of two young boys (a 5-year-old, N, and a 21-month-old, Z), I have given a lot of thought about the kind of men I want my boys to grow into. Before I had children, I always dreamt of raising little human beings who would grow up into big human beings who would contribute something wonderful to society. I imagined my kids inheriting the best qualities from their father and mother, developing their own and using them all in service to humanity, somehow.
When my eldest was born, I felt this desire to raise a good man burn even more strongly in me. I also felt this crazy, innate need to protect him from any and all possible danger – including other humans. My oldest was a very beautiful baby, an even more beautiful toddler, and, now, a very handsome little boy. Looks shouldn’t matter much – but for me, it made me even more concerned about him falling prey to some sick individual who might try to harm him.
From very early on – when he was around 2 years old – I started talking to him about his body being his and no one being allowed to touch it without permission. I started off by saying “N joon (this is a term of endearment in Farsi and is the equivalent to dear), no one is allowed to touch your penis (I firmly believe in using the real word for our anatomical parts and have an honest and open approach to all subjects in general), only Mama and Baba are allowed to touch it if we are giving you a bath/shower or helping you use the toilet; or a doctor, if Mama or Baba are there and say it’s ok. If someone tries to touch your penis you say ‘NO!!! It’s my body – do NOT touch it. NO!’ N joon, you also can’t touch anyone else’s body without permission. If anyone tries to touch you on your penis, you have to tell me”.
I would repeat this message every so often and be a bit more open about why as he got older. My message stayed relatively the same, but I would add a bit more about the important need for respect and explain we never touch someone without their permission because we have to respect others and ourselves. I would always ask if he understood and he said he did.
There was a huge shift in our lives when my oldest was 2.5 years old due to harassment and sexism, and this further solidified my desire to raise my boys to treat others, especially women, with respect. This made me push the message about consent even more consistently. I realized that in order to teach my sons properly, I couldn’t just use words, but needed to also reflect it in my actions. One way I have tried to do this is, for example, when I am tickling my son, as soon as he says stop (because he’s laughing and it’s a normal reaction) – and I mean the instant he says it – I immediately stop and say: “Ok, I stopped because you asked me to and I respect you. If you want me to tickle you again let me know.” And I follow his cue. He usually does ask me to tickle him again and I do, and he says stop and I do, and then repeat the same message regarding respect. I am a firm believer in repeating a message over and over again to allow it to sink in.
Another situation where consent comes up is with friends/family who come over and want a hug from my kids. I don’t stop the people from asking, but I do turn to my kids and say: “Only if you want to, you don’t have to”. Luckily, I haven’t found myself in a situation where some was very persistent and wouldn’t take no for an answer, but if I did, I expect I would tell them that my child has expressed their discomfort, so please stop, out of respect for them.
Teaching that No Means No
I also use any situation where “no” comes up and say: “No means no, stop means stop”. For example, if my son says: “Mommy can I watch Peppa Pig?” if I don’t want him to, I will say no and as many kids do, he will ask again, and I say: “N joon, I said no, and no means no, stop means stop. Please do not insist”. I have had many conversations with my son around insisting and telling him it is not ok. I tell him if someone answers and it’s not the answer you want, you do not keep pushing and insisting. For example, with friends who don’t want to play a certain game with him, if I see he keeps asking, I say: “Sweetheart, they said no and no means no, stop means stop. Please don’t insist. They don’t want to play that game, so respect them.” Insistence is a negative trait that caused a lot of heartache in my own life; as such, I am especially cautious to make sure my kids understand it is NOT ok to insist – about anything. I also try to remember to not do the same myself.
Teaching Non-Verbal Consent
Another aspect of consent is non-verbal, and this one is a bit harder to teach. The approach I have taken so far is to tell N to respect his little brother when he expresses that he doesn’t want to do something without actually using the word no. I say: “Z doesn’t know how to say the word ‘no’, so that is how he says it – when he shakes his head or fusses – so you must respect him because he is expressing to you that he doesn’t want to – even if he isn’t saying it”.
Taking the Conversation Further
A few weeks ago, we were playing the tickling game and N asked me to stop and I did and then I started to talk about respect and I thought to myself that he’s old enough now, and I could push this message a little further and start to introduce the concept specific to how to treat women. So I said: “One day, when you are older, you will be a big boy, a man, and if a woman or anyone says stop or no, you must stop. You should never touch anyone without permission”. His response was: “Adults don’t do that Mommy”. It broke my heart to know that I was starting the process of chipping away at his innocence, but given the world we live in, I felt it was and is necessary to really get my children to understand what consent means in regards to others and to protect them from predators. I said to him: “Some adults do sweetheart, and it is wrong, but you won’t do that will you?” And he said: “No, Mommy” as if it was obvious. Unfortunately, it isn’t obvious to many, many people, particularly of the male variation; therefore, I feel I must continue to teach my kids this message until they are grown men.
Consent takes on many forms and everyone has a different approach to it. In our home, we talk about everything in the context of respect and I just repeat the same message over and over: “No means no, stop means stop”. It’s kind of exhausting, to be honest (I’m sure you are tired of reading it multiple times in this post!) but it is also very necessary. I treat my children with the same respect I would like them to treat others with and I ask them to respect themselves as well.
The fact that my kids are boys and not girls makes me even more determined to teach them about consent, so that they grow up to be respectful men who don’t bully anyone, especially women, into doing something they don’t want to do, whether it’s of a sexual nature or any other. We need to raise a generation of people who truly understand consent so we don’t end up with a need for a #metoo movement again in the future. The bottom line: it comes down to respect, respect for oneself and for others.
How do you teach consent to your children, both boys and girls?