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How do we teach our sons about consent and respect?

Teaching boys about sexual health, consent, and developing a culture of respect is vital to keeping all children safe. Frank Wilson McColl looks at the ways she’s trying to teach her sons about consent and respect.

I used to be a young hip activist once upon a time (well, maybe I was never hip). But now I’m more likely to be catching vomit in my own hands than attending protest marches. The recent allegations of sexual harassment at Russel McVeagh, the inappropriate behaviour at universities and the #metoo campaign have had me asking myself: how can I make a difference to our society of the future?

So this year, instead of just sharing dumb ways people ‘celebrate’ International Women’s day on my Facebook page, my plan is to up my game on teaching my small boys to respect others.

Last week, the fabulous and brave Jessica Hammond Doube published a video talking about her #metoo experiences. What really struck a chord with me was that, as a teen, she didn’t know that drunk people aren’t able to give consent. Thinking back, I don’t know if I would have known that either. So how do we raise kids who can drink, work hard, be under pressure, deal with complex issues and still manage not to sexually harass anyone? Surely vigilantly teaching our sons about consent should help with this?

The first question off the block then must be: What is consent? If you have teens, stop what you’re doing and watch this great animation with them.

You don’t need to wait until kids are teens to teach them about consent, though. There are plenty of things that are done to kids, or kids do to others, that can be vehicles for learning about consent.

When my kids were going through a gun phase, we instituted a rule that you could only shoot people with their consent. My 18-month-old would ask “do you mind if I shoot you?” Often people didn’t mind, but sometimes they did and he would go off and shoot somewhere else.

One of the main criticisms people have about the idea of asking for consent is that it kills the mood or feels weird. Being asked to be shot was definitely a weird experience for the adults, but starting early means it will (fingers crossed) feel natural for my kids.

Here’s what we try to do in our family, and what I aim to be more consistent about.

Teaching my children what enthusiastic consent is

Enthusiastic consent in play means teaching kids to check in with people’s words, tone and body language. While your kids are playing, you can ask questions like:

  • Why don’t you ask her if she wants to play?
  • Is everyone enjoying that game?
  • Look at his face. What is his face telling you?
  • I heard your brother stay stop. He isn’t enjoying that game anymore. I will help you stop if you’re having a hard time stopping.
  • She doesn’t want to play that game anymore, can you suggest something else you both might like to play?

Teaching my children to listen to their bodies

Often adults don’t respect that kids know their own bodies. We cajole them to eat a few more bites when they’re not hungry, put a jacket on when they’re not cold, kiss Great Aunt Agnes when they don’t remember ever meeting her before.

Try not to negate their feelings, when you’re teaching them to listen to their bodies. If they fall over, instead of saying “you’re okay” even though they’re crying, you could try describing what you saw. “You fell over and banged your head” or “That hurt you, would you like a cuddle?”

Trusting our kids to listen to their own bodies might help them respect other people’s choices, and it might help them listen to their bodies when they find themselves in a tricky situation. It teaches them: Their body, their choice.

But what about things that have to be done? We need to keep our kids healthy and safe, so there are some non-negotiables. My kids have to brush their teeth twice a day, they have to be in a car seat when we’re driving and sometimes they have to take medicine. The key in those situations is to connect with them, explain why and slooooooow down. Chat with your kids to find out why they don’t enjoy whatever it is, change what you can and if it’s possible – wait until they are ready.

Letting my children fix their own mistakes

In our home we aim for no forced apologies. You’ve all had a sullen sorry from someone who didn’t mean it, right? Did it fix anything?

I didn’t think so.

We encourage our kids to own up to their mistakes and fix them – particularly to restore any broken relationships. If they have hurt someone, we get them to ask that person what they need to help them feel better. They might want a hug, an apology, an ice pack, help to fix what was broken, or just some space so they can cuddle with mum or dad.

Teaching my children how to cope with rejection – it’s okay to not want to play

At home we don’t tell our kids that they have to play with everyone! I think of it as akin to being told that at work I have to be friends with everyone. As an adult, I have to work well with someone, but I don’t have to sit next to them in the staff room or invite them out for drinks if we don’t naturally get along. I think a lot about who my child’s friends are at kindy or school. Are they friendly with a range of kids? Is there a kid who might be feeling lonely that they could ask to play? Are they being inclusive?

Sometimes, other kids won’t want to play with my child. And that’s usually okay. But at three, seven or even 37 years-old, rejection can be pretty devastating. I see it as my job to help my child to get through the rejection. So at home, we say things like:

“He doesn’t want to play right now, maybe he’ll want to next time.”

“She’s already playing with a friend, is there anyone else here you could ask to play?”

“Sometime friends want to play by themselves or with other kids. It doesn’t mean they’re not your friend anymore.”

“He’s changed his mind now, and he doesn’t want to play that game.”

Teaching my children to respect our own boundaries

We try to show our kids that we respect ourselves and our boundaries too. For me that means closing the door when I go to the loo so I can wee in peace, not having children in my bed, and making sure they see I make time for myself and my friends. It also means sometimes telling them that I don’t want a cuddle or that I’d like some space. You’ll have different boundaries, but whatever they are, helping your kids respect them might help them respect other people’s boundaries in the future.

Encouraging my children not to buy into gender stereotypes

People say that girls learn to talk earlier than boys, and boys are more rough and tumble, which may be true, but could just be because adults tend to talk more to baby girls and rough house more with baby boys. The way we respond to children in their first years makes a huge impact on their development,

Pervasive myths like the four-year-old testosterone surge are actually untrue, and can cause more harm than you might think. When parents dismiss a boy’s behaviour as being “caused by the testosterone surge” – what if it’s not? What if there’s something we could be doing to help these kids with their urges but we don’t because we assume they’re just biological? What if by teaching them when they’re four, it might help them control their urges when they’re 24?

Nathan Mikaere Wallis says that whatever children experience in their first thousand days (just under three years) sets them up for the rest of their lives. If we could give them respect, trust and the idea that consent is important in all areas of their lives, maybe, just maybe, they might be able to show that to others too.

Frank Wilson is a teacher, writer and mum of two young boys. She’s now taking a break from primary teaching to focus on her writing. Her specialities are social studies, literacy and integrated learning resources for teachers.

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