Talk to your kids about their bodies.
My daughter could say the word “vagina” by the time she was one (also “butthole”, which she loves), and she did, happily cooing these words to identify her anatomy during diaper changes. It was important to me that she knew them, so that if she was touched somewhere, whether it be her leg or her hand or any of the other primary body parts we teach kids or somewhere more nefarious, she could clearly communicate it to me. By demystifying these body parts early, we have normalized their discussion in our house.
I am a wannabe nudist. I am naked or partially naked a lot. At first it was just easier to not wear a shirt at home, because my daughter breastfed until she was 2.5, but then it became more important. My daughter asks me simple, pointed questions about my body. “Mom, where is your butthole?” and its ilk. By demonstrating comfort with my body and discussing it openly (even when I’m feeling a little insecure due to too much postpartum squishiness), I hope I’m modeling for her that there’s nothing inherently sexual or taboo about any of our body parts, and that she should feel okay to talk to me about hers if she has questions or concerns.
Don’t shame them for normal exploration, or use negative words to describe natural functions.
During the course of potty training, Theory realized that sitting on the potty also made it very convenient to look at, poke at, dig in her vagina, and did so with gusto. “Look!” she’d cry, rummaging around in her netheryaya until she recoiled with a sharp cry of pain and her dad would cringe inwardly, before telling her calmly that it’s cool to see what’s up down there, but it’s best to do it in private, unless you and the person/people you’re around agree that it’s okay to do together.
Likewise, when she poops, she often laments how “dirty” and “bad” it is, and protests diaper changes in a manner that suggests she feels shame. We always try to neutralize these comments by reassuring her that everybody poops, it’s natural and a lot of times makes you feel better. Reminding our kids that nothing about the body is dirty or unnatural clears the way for more communication.
Don’t make them demonstrate physical affection if they don’t want to, even to you/their siblings/dying grandma Sue.
Don’t use physical contact as a form of currency.
If she requests a cookie, even though the desperate-for-love mom in me sees an opportunity to get extra affection, I don’t offer to trade her a hug or a kiss for one. This teaches her that affection and expressions of it can be commoditized, and are transactional in nature, whereas we hope to teach her that the only reason she should engage in any display of affection or physical contact is because she enthusiastically wishes to.
Don’t invalidate their feelings.
If she’s scared, I don’t tell her “You shouldn’t be scared!” Instead, we talk about why she’s scared and address those issues. By telling her she shouldn’t feel a certain way, we’re teaching her that she shouldn’t trust her feelings or instincts, and how other people think she feels or should feel are more important than her own emotions.
Let them make decisions about their bodies [insomuch as is reasonable, depending on their age and the circumstance].
I don’t believe in permanently modifying my kids’ bodies without their consent- and while they’re too young to understand consent, that means these things don’t happen. In the same way, I want to empower them to make decisions about their own bodies as much as possible. Right now it's as simple as letting my daughter decide what she wants to wear, and even this is something I struggle with because OMGwehaveallthesecuteclotheswhatbaoutthis?! While this will become more difficult as they hit adolescence, my ground rules are:
- If by law you need parental consent to do it and I don’t support it, it needs to wait until you are old enough not to need my permission.
- You are free to petition or campaign for a change of rules you think are unjust, but you cannot modify your body in a way that will preclude you from attending school. For example, if she wants to dye her hair lime green and her school has a policy against lime green hair, she will need to take the prescribed steps to overturn that rule- by petitioning the school board/superintendent/etc. If she is successful, I would support her in dying her hair lime green.
Otherwise, my children’s bodies are their own and they can use them how they see fit.
Teach them about sex- all kinds of sex- and don’t sanctify the concept of virginity
Just because I am primarily heterosexual and cisgendered doesn’t mean my children will be, and so not only do I need to be talking to them about sex in a way that is practical and realistic, I need to be talking to them about all different kinds of sex. I can pat myself on the back and feel like a great parent for giving my son the p-in-v safe sex talk, but if he is only interested or participating in p-in-b sex, I haven’t don’t either of us any good.
Elizabeth Smart, the Mormon girl who was famously kidnapped and raped repeatedly as a teenager, has talked openly about how her religious upbringing and its emphasis on purity impacted her feelings of self-worth after her rape. By sanctifying “virginity”, we are teaching our children to feel shame if they are stripped of it against their will, which increases the likelihood they won’t speak out about it.
Teach them not to keep secrets.
My daughter knows she should never keep a secret from me, even if another adult asks her to. Since this is a tactic predators often use to cover their tracks, its important she knows she can trust me completely, and there’s no reason any well-intentioned adult would ever need her to keep something from me.
Surround them with body-positive and consent-driven books and music.
You can’t just talk the talk- you have to back it up with the kinds of content you fill your home and their lives with.
Need a good place to start? Ms. Cacie has a CD of children’s songs available on iTunes that touches on ableism, gender norms, and consent (it’s called Yes Means Yes!) presented in a way young kids can understand.
What other tips do you have for raising kids who understand consent? Drop them in the comments!