The second week of first grade, my 6-year-old son came home and told me, very seriously, “Mama, I have a girlfriend, and I love her.”
I didn’t laugh at him or tell him he is too young to have a girlfriend, and I didn’t minimise his feelings. We had a very serious dialogue about his girlfriend: what he likes about her, what they talk about at lunch, and what games they play on the playground at recess. I asked questions about her; some he knew the response to, and some he didn’t.
Nearly every day after that for some time, we talked about his girlfriend, and in every conversation, in some way, we talked about consent — what it means, what it looks like, and how I expect him to act.
I didn’t objectify the little girl by referring to her as “your little girlfriend” as I’ve heard other adults tease their own children. I didn’t attain jokes about him being a heartbreaker or tell him that the girls is likely to be falling all over him by high school. I didn’t tell him his feelings don’t matter — and I definitely didn’t tell him her impressions don’t matter. I suppose the seeds of misogyny are planted with terms as much as behavior, and I treated his emotions severely because, for him, being in love for the first time is the most serious thing in the world. He will remember this little girl just as I remember my first boyfriend, and how I manage things now is setting the tone for the future.
I wasn’t expecting to have these dialogues in the context of a relationship quites so soon.
His older brother is more introverted, with the exception of the occasional fleeting crush. But I have been talking about consent and modeling it since my sons were newborns.
The idea that young man need to learn about consent in high school or college goes hand-in-hand with the idea that sex education shouldn’t learn from them before then, either. Consent is an ongoing conversation in our home, framed to suit the situation. But now that my son has a girlfriend, I’m finding ways to introduce the concept of consent within a relationship on a level that he can understand.
From the time my sons were very little — before they could even talk — I started teaching them about body independence and consent.
“Do you want me to tickle you? ” “Can I pick you up? ” “Do you want me to brush your hair? “
I would ask whenever I could, waiting for their answer before proceeding further. Yes, of course, there are times when a young child needs to be picked up or hair needs to be brushed whether they want it or not, but there are just as many times when children can be given — and deserve — the right to choose. And so I let them choose whenever I can.
Teaching them that no one can touch them without permission was the first step in teaching them about respecting the boundaries of others.
With my sons at 6 and 7 years old now, I model the respect I expect them to extend to others. It is an ongoing lesson, as the most important lessons always are.
Of course they opposed — what siblings don’t? But I teach them that, whatever the game or activity, if someone says “Stop! ” or “No! ” they are to stop what they are doing.
To that aim, I try to stay out of their bickers and give them time to sort them out. If they don’t stop, there are outcomes. We talk about how it feels to have someone keep chasing, tickling, or bothering you when you’ve told them to stop. I watch their empathy for others grow as they consider how it feels to be little and have grownups want to touch their faces or hug them without permission. They’re learning, and it gives me hope.
But now I’m having daily conversations with my youngest son about girlfriends and what is — and isn’t — OK.
He knows he has to ask if she wants a hug before he touches her. He knows that it’s rude to refer to her as “my girlfriend” when talking about her and that it’s better, and more respectful, to use her name.
He knows that if he gives her a gift, he should dedicate her a chance to respond instead of inundating her with more gifts. “Let’s wait and see how she feels about this lovely image you made her before you depict another one, ” I tell him, explaining how overwhelming it can be to have person give you gifts when you’re not ready for them or haven’t had a chance to return the affection. Of course, I’m thinking about the son I knew my junior year of high school who would constantly leave me trinkets of his affection at my locker — affection that wasn’t reciprocated and stimulated me uncomfortable, especially after I asked him to stop.
I don’t know if I’m doing this right, honestly.
There are times when I think to myself, “But he’s merely 6! Why are we even having this conversation? ” And then I remind myself, “If not now, when? ”
I know what it means to be a girl in this world, and my sons are starting to hear my #MeToo narratives, the ones they’re old enough to understand. How do I talk about what’s incorrect in the world if I’m not willing to talk about the right behaviors, the right way to treat girls?
I know my sons have a good role model in their father and in our matrimony. I know they watch how my husband interacts with me, and I see it reflected in how they treat me. It’s a start, but I know it’s not sufficient in a world that sends mixed messages to boys about girl children and how to treat them.
It’s been eye-opening, ensure how my children consider consent.
I’ve insured how those early lessons in teaching them about their own right to say no going to go a long way in teaching them the empathy and respect they prove for others now.
I know we’re not done; we’re only just starting. I know it’s merely going to get more complicated as they get older.
But at the end of the working day , no matter their age, the core lesson is the same: respect people, care about how the objective is impression in your interactions with them, and remember that others have a right to feeling differently than you do and to define boundaries for what is OK with them. The situations will change, but those words will be repeated again and again.
Teaching consent is not a one-time discussion. It’s something I want my sons to think about every single day.
This story originally appeared on Ravishly and is reprinted here with permission. More from Ravishly 😛 TAGEND