There are many things that keep parents awake at night and I am no different. As a mom to twin four-year old boys, that list can be long, and it has changed as they have grown. What has not changed from the top, or near the top, of the list is how to raise sons who respect all humans, but specifically as they get older, girls and women. This one sits over my head daily. I am always so grateful for moms who share what they did, how they did it–how they raised sons who grew up to be respectful men. I love their stories and it’s encouraging that so many women value respect enough to demand it of their sons.
Maybe this haunts me because I work on a college campus with college-aged women. Maybe it’s because, far too often, I’ve seen the negative effects of disrespect. It makes me cringe and wonder how my sons can be part of a solution to a horrible problem. I am not numb to the news, to the movements, to the hashtags and the outpouring of stories. But how do I raise sons who are also not numb to something that both appears to saturate the narrative, and all at once doesn’t seem to be enough?
Clearly I don’t have the answers, or I wouldn’t keep this towards the top of my list. But I did get my first chance to start teaching my sons about respecting others and the idea of consent a month ago when my sister and her kids were visiting.
No Kisses, Please
My sons are big huggers and kissers–they always have been–and so far, I have let it be just what it is: their preferred way to show affection. Family, teachers, speech therapists… they have hugged and kissed while I was there to observe. So far it hasn’t been anything out of the ordinary for young children. So I didn’t think anything of it when my sons, who always hug and kiss before they go to bed, tried to kiss my sister and the rest of their cousins. But then my sister made it clear that they don’t kiss on the lips in her family, and she just wanted them to hug them. It broke the heart of my son, Lachlan, and he cried and continued to do so in his room afterward. I was sort of scrambling at what the right response was, and then it occurred to me–this is where it starts. This is where this culture of consent starts, right now, in this moment.
Lachlan was upset and kept saying that he wanted to kiss my sister and his cousins. To which my reply was firm and clear: it doesn’t matter what YOU want. It doesn’t matter if you want to kiss someone, if they don’t want you to kiss them, you don’t get to kiss them. Ever. He pushed back at that thought by repeating for a few times that he wanted to. Then, after I just kept repeating the message, he started to shake his head that maybe he was starting to understand. There was no way around it, there was no sugarcoating it, and it doesn’t matter he’s only four. The conversation has to start somewhere, and although I never imagined having it with a four-year old, here we were.
Understanding Consent Starts Early
The next day, driving back out to see my sister and her kids, I brought it up to my sons in the car. While one of my sons had adjusted on the spot and never did get upset about it, we still talked about it. Then I bounced it back to Lachlan again to see what he had recalled about the night before.
“Well I still want to kiss them,” he said. “But they don’t want me to so I won’t.”
That night, it wasn’t an issue. Lachlan hugged and said his goodnights and there were no more tears. The idea of consent may be a loose one, and it is competing with Hot Wheels, Paw Patrol and cats in his mind, but it is in there. If you went up to my sons right now and posed that question–can you kiss someone if they don’t want to you to kiss them–their response will be a swift and a resounding no. For now at least, the concept is in that sponge that is their little brains. For now, I don’t feel as helpless as I once did. The dialog can be adjusted to the age and the situation as long as the message stays the same.
Do I know that the conversations will get harder and more awkward? Absolutely. I also don’t want to be confused for someone that believes that my someday teenagers should be seeking out this behavior in the first place–trust me, I am not. But I also know that as my sons get older, my ability to inject in their day-to-day situations and decisions will be vastly different than it is now. As parents, we seize opportunities all the time to help shape the choices our children make, and this subject, the idea of consent, for all genders, is no different.
Even as uncomfortable with it as I am, it is my job to make sure my sons know that what they want NEVER trumps what someone else doesn’t, period. Consent is not up for debate. In fact, that extends all over the place. If my sons learn everyone has a right to their own feelings and bodies, they will know that they, too, have a say in the very same things–it’s never too early to teach our children that.