I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it wasn’t until after the Steubenville High School rape case in 2012 that I realized that consent was a Thing. I mean, I’d always known the word, but I’d never before thought of it as a principle, something to be taught and learned and insisted upon the way we do with freedom and equality. I remember reading Abby Norman’s post The Day I Taught How Not to Rape and feeling stunned by the simple truth of her premise:
“We have to teach clearly and boldly that consent is… an enthusiastic, unequivocal YES!”
Maybe those of you who came from Quiverfull-style backgrounds can relate to my own upbringing in which the guiding principle was submission rather than consent. Children and women were taught that our bodies were not our own and that struggling against a physical aggressor in a position of authority over us was grounds for harsher treatment. Intimacy was something to be claimed by those in power. I can hardly think of a more dangerous mindset for sheltered children to grow up believing.
After several episodes of “submitting” to boyfriends who wanted to take advantage of me, I was finally able to reject that mentality, and I am often reminded of how grateful I am to be here, free, seeing my own voice carry weight. This has taken time to filter down into my parenting through. I’ve taught my girls from the beginning about which parts of their body are off-limits to everyone except Mom and their doctor (“If someone tries to touch you there, you say…?” “NO!!!!”), but we never talked any further about why someone might want to touch them there or what other kinds of predatory behavior they should watch out for. Part of it was that I didn’t want to scare the girls, but the larger reason was that I honestly hadn’t considered the possibility that they would be targeted.
Who wants to think about that? Let me tell you, there is a special kind of nausea reserved for parents who imagine their children being groomed by a sexual predator. I was so unwilling to go there that I didn’t even think about my unwillingness to think about it… until recently when a friend with a daughter Sophie’s age had to confront some troubling attention her daughter was receiving from a bus monitor. I spent the whole next morning doing research on how to talk to kids about body safety and then made up a worksheet that Dan and I went over with the girls at lunch (and have referred to several times since).
Our conversation was mercifully devoid of the fear and the ick-factor that my inner pessimist had expected. Dan and I talked matter-of-factly, answering the girls’ questions and helping them role-play scenarios so they could practice safe responses. We focused on these main points:
- I am the boss of my own body! We reiterated what they should do if someone tries to touch their bathing suit areas and then talked at length about how they can refuse any kind of touch that makes them uncomfortable. This can be a delicate subject here in Italy, where even new acquaintances will bend down and ask children for a kiss on the cheek. However, Dan and I agreed that the girls’ personal boundaries are more important than society’s standards of politeness, and we taught them how to say, “I’m sorry, I’d rather not” and stick to it, even (especially!!) if the person gets upset.
- I don’t keep secrets from Mom & Dad! We clarified the difference between a surprise (something you’ll get to tell soon) and a secret (something you’re never supposed to tell) and impressed on the girls how important it is that they tell us immediately if anyone ever asks them to keep a secret from us. We had to do a wee bit of backpedaling on this one as Natalie’s first question was, “So I have to tell you secrets my friends tell me at school?” Dan and I did the best we could explaining which kinds of secrets are okay for the girls to keep and which ones aren’t, and it’s possible the whole subject is more confusing than ever. We’ll try to keep open dialogue about it though and hope that the main point sticks.
- If I don’t have permission from Mom & Dad, I don’t do it! This one provided the most role-playing hilarity, but our point was simple. If someone—even someone they know—asks the girls to come into their house, get into their car, or take a walk with them, they need to get permission first. Period. End of story. No exceptions. We did clarify that they can get permission from a babysitter or relative that we have personally put in charge of them, but they should never take someone’s word that it will be fine to go off alone.
- I stay away from “tricky people”! I got this wording from Pattie Fitzgerald, a child safety expert who makes the point that “strangers” only make up 10% of those who sexually abuse children. Instead, we want our girls to be wary of any “tricky person,” defined as anyone who makes our girls feel unsafe, nervous, or icky, anyone who won’t respect the girls’ boundaries, or anyone significantly older than them who says they specially need the girls’ help. (That last one is apparently a tactic that predators use to lure kids away or groom them toward a more intimate relationship.) If they feel someone is acting “tricky” around them, the girls are to come tell us right away.
- If I get lost when I’m out, I… The girls already knew the first rule about getting lost in public, which is that they should stop right where they are and wait for us to find them rather than wander around looking for us. We then taught them that if they see a police offer or a mom with kids come by, those are safe people to ask for help. They should then ask those people to call their parents from where they’re standing. (The girls know both of our mobile numbers by heart. Mostly. We’ve been quizzing them every couple of days to be sure.)
I’m grateful that we were able to have a good family discussion about boundaries without making the girls paranoid of every single adult male in their lives or every stranger on the sidewalk. In fact, as we talked, I realized just how empowering the conversation was. We were teaching the girls that they have the right to say no to unwanted touch. What I would have given for that sense of ownership over my own body as a girl!
I’m not sure whether or not we’ve covered everything we should on this topic with the girls. When I read that the director of GRACE, a Christian child abuse investigation firm, has seen too much to allow his daughters to sleep over at their friends’ houses or attend church camps, my throat closed up a little. Is it really as bad as that? Am I endangering my children every time I leave them in someone else’s care? The idea of keeping the girls confined to home doesn’t sit well with me, so I’m trusting that there’s a balance between naivety and paranoia. Surely we can be informed and prepared without thinking the worst of everyone around us. Surely our children can take steps toward independence without opening themselves to abuse. Surely, surely, fear should not be our rubric for parenting any more than denial should.
The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is that we can share our collective wisdom for the benefit of all, so here’s where I open it up to you. What are your thoughts on teaching body safety to kids? Are there any strategies or conversations that have worked well in your experience? I’m still very, very new at this line of thought, so I’d appreciate any insights you might have… and judging by the sheer number of new parents among my friends, I suspect I’m not the only one.