I’ve been extremely dismayed to read so much about rape culture, how women and girls are treated, how men and boys are raised.
I’ve read so much about how to teach our boys what NOT to do vis-a-vis girls and women (which I usually agree with), yet I read so little about how to simply raise them to be emotionally evolved/aware, conscious, respectful of themselves and others, and well-versed in consent (for themselves and others) that I sometimes feel left in the dark. In the face of that, I am absolutely determined to do my part around raising a boy who is proud of who is he, aware of his and others’ boundaries, curious and questioning about himself and the world.
I think it begins here. Now. One child at a time.
Sometimes one bath at a time.
In the bath the other day, my three year old said, “Mama, if I stretch out, I”ll touch your vulva.”
I said, “I don’t really want you to touch my vulva. Besides, you need to ask. Like, if someone wanted to touch your penis, they should ask, Can I touch your penis?”
Three year-old, slightly exasperated, “Say, Can I touch your penis?”
I was slightly slow on the uptake. Suddenly it dawned on me. “You want me to ask if I can touch your penis?”
It was an unusual request, but I decided to go with it. “Can I touch your penis?” I asked.
I reach over and touch him for about one second.
He pauses. Then, he says, “Mama, my penis is very sensitive.” I nod.
“Yeah. My vulva is sensitive, too. Sometimes breasts and nipples are also sensitive.”
His face lights up. “Do you want to touch my boobies?” he asks. He places his fingers on his little nipples.
“Okay. Actually, those are your nipples.”
“Do you want to touch my nipples.”
I touch one lightly.
“Do you want to touch the other one?”
I touch the other one lightly.
He smiles. I smile. And then he wants to play wrong-way whale and thrash around in the tub,so I get out. There’s truly one room for one in the bathtub when playing wrong-way whale.
Here were my take-aways.
1. Setting boundaries around my body as a parent.
He wanted to touch a part of me that I didn’t want him to touch. I set the boundary—and actually had a history of setting a boundary when we were breastfeeding. There was a certain point where I knew he could ask to nurse through gesture or word, so I insisted that he did. I never let him simply grab my breasts or lift my shirt. This felt important to me. I think this is key for parents.
What boundaries do you set around your body for your kids?
2. Setting boundaries around other people touching him.
When he doesn’t want to kiss or hug or even high five, I reinforce our family rule that no one is pushed to be affectionate when they don’t want to be. This extends to everyone. At one point, my mom questioned this (as others have done), along the lines of: Shouldn’t he *have* to hug and kiss family? To which I’ve responded with a resounding No. In face of the fact that over 90% of children are abused by someone they know and 30 – 40% are abused by a family member, I think it’s absolutely critical that he be 100% at choice around how he gives and receives affection. I want him to listen to his body, his desires, even his whims when it comes to consent around his body. I want him to notice when he wants to be affectionate and not. I want him to honor others when they don’t want him to touch them, and to learn not to take it personally. I want his desire to be affectionate to come from a place of a genuine yes, not a “no, but I have to, so . . . ” I wonder what other parents do.
Do you obligate your child to be affectionate with yourself or other people, perhaps because they are friends or relatives?
3. A child’s sexuality vs. an adult sexuality.
So when my three year old asked me to touch him, I also had to check in with myself. Was this an “okay” thing to do? And I realized that it was, for two reasons. One, he had made the request. Two, I knew that while I was touching his penis, I wasn’t bringing my adult sexuality to play. This makes a world of difference from where I’m coming from. Children are very sensual and sexual creatures, but their sexuality is not an adult sexuality. They don’t have the same hormonal drive, the same desires, the same needs. Sure, children do masturbate and feel pleasure (why shouldn’t they?) AND I know I want my son to be able to choose when he wants to receive and give pleasure.
It brings to mind the question: do you ever collapse an adult sexuality with a child’s sexuality?
How can you separate those when you have young children?
4. Checking in about how/what I want to touch even after consent is given.
Another important pieces is I had to ask myself if I wanted to touch his penis. I was a yes out of pure curiosity. I wanted to see where the thread of inquiry went and how the conversation around consent would unfold. I love seeing how his mind works, and how the lightbulbs go on. It worked for me. There are other times, however, when I don’t feel like being affectionate. I learn how to be a generous no, so he can learn how to receive it. Are you ever affectionate with your child when you don’t want to be? Are there times when you could be a generous no?
For me, all of this is the beginning of planting the seeds of consent. It is about empowering my son with knowledge about his body and my body as well – and truly whatever body he comes into contact with. It is about teaching him to ask for what he wants. And of equal importance, it is about never shaming him for his desires. He can want what he wants, and express what he wants.
It doesn’t mean he’s going to get it, and it doesn’t mean there’s any shame in simply asking.