Consent – talking to my son about it
The other day, my seven-year-old-son came home after school and told me that a few kids in his class had refused to play with him. Naturally, I was curious about why that’d happen. Turns out, it’s the girls in his class who didn’t want to play with some of the boys, a group of which he was a part of. I prodded further and he said,
“The girls felt our games were too rough and that we often got too much into their space. We touched them even when it was not intentional…”
Translated from his Swahili response: Girls walisema games zetu ni rough sana, tunawaingilia sana na tukicheza tunawagusa hata kama hatutaki na ni game.
For a split second, I was dumbfounded – not because this is an unusual thing, but because I didn’t think we would have this conversation so soon. More importantly, I figured the need to teach consent early. Lately, social media has been abuzz with talk on consent, particularly following an increase in the number of rape cases reported (and an accompanying worrisome trend on young women been raped and murdered).
Consent has little to do with sex, and everything to do with boundaries!
I have been reading about consent and reflecting on my personal experiences. I realized something: Consent has very little to do with sex. It revolves about boundaries – creating them and the need to respect these boundaries. As a parent, I know the need to model the same for my son.
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I honestly did not think I would need to have this talk so soon, and when I began to respond, I found myself questioning whether it was the right time.
“He is only 7 years, isn’t it too early?” I’d think to myself.
“But if not now, when is the time?” I’d reply to myself.
Too early to teach him about consent?
The notion that consent is to be learnt at a later stage in life, perhaps the teen years, comes off the idea that sex education should wait as well. But we live in a digital and super-connected world, which means that kids are getting more information earlier in their lives than ever before. Isn’t it then, the right time for me to talk to my son about consent?
In retrospect, I had already started to talk to my son about body autonomy a little earlier – by letting him know that no one ought to touch them without their permission. No one was allowed to touch their private parts, and that a ‘No’ means a ‘No’. That included been ‘forced’ to embrace or to hug someone as a form of greeting. I made sure to emphasize that this was an important part of creating boundaries. In addition, if he ever felt uncomfortable with someone, he had permission to let them know they were uncomfortable and to leave that space.
In the same breath, he was not allowed to touch anyone without their permission. If someone told him they were uncomfortable, they needed to respect that – even if he did not think there was reason for someone to be uncomfortable.
When it comes to consent, a ‘No’ means NO
This brings me to this conversation we had recently. The girls in his grade felt uncomfortable playing with my son’s group of friends. My son needed to understand that he had to respect the girls’ decisions and boundaries. Granted, he may not have seen the ‘roughness’ of their games, but if the girls said No to that, they had to stop it.
I could see that he still didn’t think it was a ‘big deal’. So I flipped the conversation and asked him how it would feel if he had to keep telling someone that he didn’t want to play, even after he said ‘No’. Then it started to sink in. I saw his nonchalance turn to empathy – of course, he would hate for someone to do that. He is still learning. I know this provides a great chance to teach more about consent. I am aware that it gets more complicated as he approaches pre-teen and teen years. When all is said and done, the underlying lesson is the need to respect others and to create boundaries. This is not a one-day conversation – it is something I hope my son will keep in mind as he interacts with different people.
Practical ways to teach your child about consent
I got these handy nuggets from the Fatherly website, on practical ways to teach young children about consent:
- Teaching a child about consent means teaching them about boundaries. So establish boundaries in the home and natural consequences when those boundaries are crossed.
- Explicit lessons about physical boundaries can begin as soon as children are becoming curious about bodies, around 4-years old.
- Lessons around physical boundaries start simple with reinforcing the idea that no means no. It also means that children are not allowed to touch another person without permission.
- Parents need to respect their children’s boundaries, too. Model consent by not tickling, hugging, kissing or wrestling children when they say no.
- If children are struggling to understand couch the lesson in the idea of asking permission. This may be easier for some kids to understand.