It’s all over the news: Weinstein, Spacey, the president, the #metoo campaign, and people speaking up and speaking out about sexual harassment, assault, and violence. Now is the time to not only talk about what continues to be normalized behavior in our society but also to talk about how we can make REAL change. As parents we talk about looking for signs of abuse, and preventing abuse, but how can we actually help our children see and know the signs of danger? How can we also help our children to NOT become perpetrators of assault and harassment?
Sexual abuse and assault often cause lifelong shame and trauma, as well as myriad of other issues that often take years to come to the surface. As a survivor myself I know that there are still many, many parts of myself that I have buried instead of processed in a healthier manner. I wish I hadn’t felt so alone and so guilty at the time, and one of my current goals is to work towards ensuring that we talk openly about abuse, give survivors a platform to talk without judgment, and finally to help empower parents to teach their children the importance of consent from a very early age. .
We can make a huge difference to our children’s lives by teaching consent from day one. If a child grows up understanding the importance of the word no they will not only be more inclined to listen to others, but also more able to speak up when they feel that someone is pushing them too far. Boundaries help us all develop healthier relationships, and I personally think that we can have a hand in ultimately creating a society where abusers no longer have a place (one can hope anyway).
There are many ways that we can instill the importance of consent in our children at all ages. Let’s have a look at some of the most effective ones.
From infancy to school-age:
· Don’t force affection: I’m sure most of us have memories of being forced to hug or kiss a family friend or relation when we really didn’t feel like it. Giving a family member a kiss or a hug goodbye may seem like the polite thing to do, but there are many other ways to say hello or goodbye: a high five, a smile, or just the words “hello”, “goodbye”, “I love you”. If we teach our children from an early age that they are in charge of their bodies, and that no one else has the right to force them to do something with it, we are setting healthy boundaries for now AND the future.
· No means no: I find myself repeating the word “No” ad nauseam to my toddlers, but I know that in the end it is for the greater good. I want my children to understand that when somebody says “no”, however small their voice may be, it still means “NO”. This boundary helps not only establish safety measures for a parent, but shows the importance of listening to others and understanding when not to push. We all have different levels of comfort when it comes to relationships, but having the self-confidence and autonomy to say no is extremely important.
· No secrets: the words “this is our little secret” still make me shudder. Abusers tend to use this line to ensure their victims stay silent. This is why we don’t have secrets in our house, and we encourage our children to talk about everything with us. While I will always respect my children’s privacy, I also want them to understand that if someone wants them to keep a secret and they don’t feel comfortable with it, we will always be there to listen and advise them.
· Empathy: nowadays kids are literally bombarded with all types of images, ranging from your average selfie to the worst warzone carnage. It can be easy to become desensitized to pain and suffering when it is constantly on a reel in front of you, and this can result in a lack of empathy. There is nothing wrong in teaching our children about the world, and starting discussions on what we can all do to make a change for the better. Empathetic children are more likely to notice when something isn’t right, and to listen to others without judgment.
School-age through teenage years
· Encourage conversation: It’s hard to start a conversation with your child about tough subjects such as periods, attraction, body changes, parties, alcohol, and sex, but by letting them know they can talk to us about all of that without fear, we can help them navigate through their feelings and emotions in a healthy manner. Our children don’t need to be our best friends, but they do need to know that they can trust us with anything and that we trust them.
· Build self-esteem: I think it is a natural tendency to comment on someone’s physical attributes, but if we also make the effort to focus on other important values we can help our children grow into all-round confident beings. Kids that always know that they are valued and appreciated tend to do the same with their peers. Another great confidence builder is always providing a choice rather than demanding something, because it basically puts the power of making a decision into a child’s hand. While choosing between going to the zoo or to the fair may not seem like a life-changing moment, it does provide a child with the knowledge that they CAN be trusted with making an important decision.
I think that one of the most important things to remember is that our kids are often a lot more observant than we give them credit for. With this in mind we should strive to provide a positive example in our own relationships. If we are trying to instill the importance of consent in our children, but we constantly never say no to a pushy partner or friend, then all of our efforts will most likely fall flat. Needless to say I know that becoming a parent really helped me see the intricacies of some of my relationships in a better light, often leading to me questioning the necessity of having certain people in my life. What can I say…? Our children can teach US something, even before they can talk!