My boys — now aged 3 and 6 — are constantly asking questions about bodies and growing up and how babies get into mommies’ bellies. I don’t think it’s ever too early to answer questions about sex; and likewise, it’s never too early to teach kids about consent. Here are five ways I’ve tried to show them how to respect themselves and others…
YOU’RE THE BOSS.
We often tell our boys that they’re the boss of their bodies — I love that it’s a clear, age-appropriate phrase (every kid understands the concept of boss!). If Toby wants privacy while getting dressed, I’ll say, “For sure, you’re the boss of your body.” If Anton doesn’t want to kiss grandma, I’ll say, “You’re the boss of your body; it’s up to you.” If they’re playing with another child who doesn’t want a hug, I’ll remind them, “He’s the boss of his body, you need to stop.” You can see how empowered each child feels — especially three-year-old Anton, who, as the little brother, is quite literally not the boss of anything else. :)
The feminist writer Jessica Valenti, author of Sex Object, recently told me this eye-opening tip: “It’s important to normalize a healthy reaction to the rejection of affection. So, if I ask my daughter for a kiss on the cheek and she says not right now, I smile and say, ‘Okay!’ I want her to know that the appropriate reaction to saying ‘no’ to physical affection is saying fine and moving on. Not a guilt trip, not anger, not sulking.” It was a lightbulb moment. Before, when Anton didn’t want to cuddle, I’d playfully pout and beg for kisses — now I respect his decision and move on.
THERE ARE DIFFERENT WAYS TO SAY NO THAN JUST SAYING NO.
We have a great, straightforward children’s book called No Means No. But people don’t always have to say no in order to mean no. I encourage the boys to notice social cues and watch people’s body language — does it seem like the baby likes it when you squeeze her? Her face looks upset. That means you need to stop right away.
My friend in San Francisco regularly tells her children, “It’s time to go. Do you want to ask Jenna if she’d like a hug or high five?” By phrasing it as a question, she lets both children decide if they want to embrace — or not. Those small linguistic changes can seem inconsequential, but think how much they might shift your perspective as you grow up into a pre-teen, teenager and adult — and when it comes to hooking up and sex. Now I’ve adopted her approach, too.
TALK OPENLY AND STRAIGHTFORWARDLY ABOUT BODIES, GROWTH, SEX, ETC.
I try to never seem grossed out or shy about anything to do with the boys’ bodies or mine. (For example, they’ve asked about my tampons on the bathroom counter, and I tell them matter-of-factly what they’re for.) By learning the correct words for their body parts, they’re empowered and able to speak directly about them, and they know they can come to me with questions and get an honest answer. My mom had the same approach when we were growing up, and I always felt so comfortable talking to her about anything that was on my mind.
How do you teach your kids about consent, sex and bodies? Do they ask questions? I’d love to hear. This article — 8 sex-positive things you can say to your kids that have nothing to do with sex — was also fantastic.