I thought I knew all about the idea of consent, and then I had a baby. Raising a girl has given me a chance to see what a fresh start in our society looks like for someone free and (relatively) untouched by sexism. It has given me the amazing opportunity to try as best I could to inoculate my daughter against society’s harms and prepare her to change the world for the better. Watching her grow has broadened my conception of consent. It’s given me new insight into ways that building a culture of consent in my house and in my presence can set a foundation for her to thrive, even in a society that won’t always be safe.
The messages girls get growing up are laden with expectations around politeness and silence. We are trained to make sure others are happy, to not upset the order of things, and to endure hardship. Girls of color are particularly targeted and, because of the intense pressure on young girls of color to survive hardship in silence, their struggles go tragically unseen and the myth is perpetuated that girls of color can endure more pain and deserve more hardship.
How do we set our girls up for the confidence in themselves to navigate a world that sees them as objects and expects them to stay silent? We can counteract the wrong societal messages with an avalanche of TRUTH from home. Home can be a foundation of strength and confidence if we as parents can give our girls early messages about their worthiness and a sense of choice about their bodies.
The story of Malala Yousafzai, shot for defying the Taliban’s ban on girls going to school and becoming a global icon for girls and women, is an incredible example of parental influence. Malala became fearless and determined to act outside of the oppression, all starting with her father’s belief in her intelligence and capability. We as parents have the power to change the world with just our belief in our children and our treatment of them outside of what the oppressive society says is true.
In this four part series on consent, I look at separate and related issues: respect for physical space, what it means that her body belongs to her, the concept of body acceptance, and how teaching your child about consent means honoring her mind so she can voice her opinions and trust her instincts.
This is the first installment in the series.
Respect for Her Physical Body
When we talk about consent, we usually talk about bodily autonomy, meaning that each person’s body belongs to them and they get to decide about physical touch. Every child has had the experience of being hugged or being made to hug relatives, politely enduring unwanted touch and attention because “it’s family.” These experiences groom girls to tolerate unwanted touching throughout their lives.
Even the Girl Scouts have strong message: telling your child they “owe” a hug to Aunt Margaret instills in them a sense that their physical affection is something expected. It teaches girls to mute their own instincts and opinions about affection and physical touch, and later this has a significant impact on their ability to know and voice their own desires.
Ways to Pre-empt Unwanted Physical Touch for Your Child (Just in time for the holidays!)
- Decide your family’s preferences about saying goodbye. What is the bare minimum you want to happen during a hello or goodbye? In my house, I insist that my daughter always make eye contact when saying hello or goodbye. “We always look!” is what I say. This allows you as a parent to reinforce what you actually care about with greetings when it comes to your child.
- Before company is about to leave, I preempt the issue by asking, “How do you want to say goodbye to Grandma?” or “How do you girls want to say goodbye?” Then I’ll sometimes say, “Hug? High five? Wave?” Wave is the key. Always include wave—it means your child doesn’t have to move their body to approach anyone, and inserts the possibility for a goodbye without physical contact.
- Sometimes, someone REALLY wants to hug your child. Like Grandma, Aunt Margaret, or even the stranger lady at the Panera (WTF). In these cases, I have a cavalier attitude about it. “Oh, I don’t know, she might not want to!” I say cheerfully. Then, I ask my daughter, “Want to hug?” If she says no, I press on, “Oh well, see you later!” Sometimes I even say “Oh, too bad she doesn’t want to. I know you give the best hugs. Can I have one?” and make a light joke of it. With my attitude I’m giving my daughter cover to have it go the way she wants. I want her to know I have her back here.
- Sometimes the other child wants to hug. (My daughter never wants to hug). In those cases, I’ll say “Josey wants to hug. Do you?” If she says yes, they hug. If not, I make a funny joke and we move on. Sometimes she gets a sudden surprise of a hug from another toddler and I let it go. Missed one :)
Sometimes your child will feel pressured to hug or you’ll miss some surprise hug. This is life. But if the overwhelming message she gets from you for years and years of her early life is that she’s in charge of physical touch, you’ll have made a huge impact on her sense of herself as in charge—not just of her body, but herself as a whole.
One day you’ll kiss her face one too many times and she’ll say “Mommy stop!” It might sting that this 5 year old doesn’t like the kisses as much as she once did, but that’s when you know you have a girl who knows her body is hers. Great work, mom!
Julie Lause is a school principal by day and a blogger by night. Over at The Bossy House she writes for women taking charge of it all, from work to parenting to the house to the world!
Besides pursuing her part time hobby of painting everything turquoise, Julie is passionate about building a home of independence, freedom, and connection.
Check out her free email course on home re-organization if you need a fresh way of looking at the clutter and want to start from the ground up. Take charge in three weeks!