In case you hadn’t noticed from previous entries, we run a feminist household. That means we strive for equality, interdependence, respecting one another, and working toward raising our children with feminist values. One of these efforts includes ending the cycle of rape culture. This doesn’t mean we actively talk about rape all the time. It would be emotionally draining and bordering on insanity to talk about it outside of realms when it presents itself in the news or conversation (sadly, political leaders have had a lot to say on the matter in recent years that appalls us). And though we can have frank conversations with our teenager, we don’t even use the word around our two year old. He’s too young to understand, and if he could understand, it might upset him grievously.
What we do talk about is bodily autonomy, and the right of an individual to decide what happens to his or her body. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve said, “His body, his choice,” or something similar at the end of a conversation (change pronouns where appropriate). Teaching consent early helps children feel ownership of their bodies, shows them parents can be trusted to communicate about body issues, and makes them less vulnerable to sexual predators.
This is a tricky subject with one so young, because sometimes as parents, we must do something to him he doesn’t want. Taking him to the doctor for exams and vaccines, putting an ice pack on a bruise or cleaning a scrape, giving him medicine, and even changing his diaper. Constant communication is key to helping him understand.
We teach bodily autonomy when he’s grabbing one of the cats, and they’re signaling they don’t like it.
We teach bodily autonomy when we don’t force him to hug people, even ones we trust like close friends or extended family.
We teach bodily autonomy when we use anatomically correct terms for all our body parts.
We teach bodily autonomy when he’s hit his sister or me or his dad, explaining that it hurts and stating we wish him to stop.
We teach bodily autonomy when he doesn’t want his diaper changed, but theres an immediate need to do so (sometimes he can run around without one for a little while on warm days).
We teach bodily autonomy when he doesn’t want to be tickled and asks us to stop.
We teach bodily autonomy when his dad suggests he get a haircut and he insists he doesn’t want one.
We teach bodily autonomy when he rubs my breasts to indicate a desire to nurse, but I’m not willing or able in that moment.
Like many of our unschooling lessons, the conversation about human rights, including the right to make choices about what happens to one’s body, is an ongoing conversation happening across the whole of his time with us. My daughter has been raised the same way: learning it’s her body, and she decides what is done with it (but I still have some say about routine care and health issues like sleep times and eating well).
The only effective method of ending a societal acceptance of sexual violence and coercion is to teach the younger generations about their right to make choices about their bodies and where those rights end when it comes to the bodies of others. If they’re raised in a manner that shows respect toward their choices and are expected to give the same respect in kind, our young men and women won’t feel entitled to possess, pressure, coerce, or force anyone else into a sexual situation.
We started teaching our son about bodily autonomy from day one, when we told his doctor explicitly that he wouldn’t be circumcised, and we will continue to teach this necessary, monumental lesson about consent and human rights all the days he’s with us.
Here are further discussions and resources for you if you’re working with a child of any age to understand consent, though most of these resources are geared toward preschool through elementary school children:
A Kid’s First Book About Sex – Joani Blank’s body awareness book for young children is perfect for teaching kids preschool and up about their bodies, relationships, and touch. While it’s out of print, it can be downloaded for free, along with the workbook for elementary students, though a donation is welcome. This book can sometimes be found online used or as a collector’s item. My daughter loved this book when she was three, and I’m hoping soon my son will, too.
My Body Belongs to Me – web site for the body books by Jill Starishevsky
Your Body Belongs to You – A young children’s book about consent and touch, written by Cornelia Spelman.
Pragmatic Mom’s Top 10 Books to Empower Kids About Their Bodies includes both a list of books to read, as well as a list of tips to help model and teach appropriate, ethical behavior with regard to other people’s bodies.
Why I Never Force My Kids to Kiss Their Grandparents (or Anyone Else) focuses precisely on the lessons being taught when we tell children they have to hug or kiss someone when they don’t want to.
Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21 from Everyday Feminism offers great tips on talking to kids at any age.
Teaching Consent to Small Children from Patheos.com
Even the Washington Post says It’s Never Too Early to Teach Children About Consent and Boundaries