How Do We Teach Children About Consent?

Sexual harassment. It seems we can’t move for yet more depressing stories about men being incapable of comporting themselves correctly. As a result of this, YouGov have just released the findings of a study carried out to better understand what people actually consider to be sexual harassment. The results seem to indicate that younger women have a stricter definition of sexual harassment than older women. This doesn’t strike me as particularly surprising. We live in a much more connected world than we did and there are more platforms upon which women are able to discuss harassment openly and admit that we don’t actually find being wolf whistled at, or having our boobs commented on, all that flattering. Older women report being much less bothered by wolf whistles and having their appearance commented upon than do younger women.

However a generation of women chooses to describe sexual harassment, that is what we must accept. Just as I, as a white woman, do not get to decide what constitutes racism, I’m afraid men don’t get to dictate what counts as sexual harassment. Let’s be clear, men are the perpetrators of the majority of incidences of sexual harassments and as such, calls of ‘it’s just locker room banter’ or ‘we were drunk’ cut no mustard with me. If it makes other people uncomfortable then stop it, just stop it.

Caitlin Moran put it so much better than I ever can (obviously), in her 2015 article “What Men Need To Know About Women” She wrote: “But we are scared. Of what you can do. Try to imagine, for a moment, what it’s like to live on a planet where half the people on it are just … bigger than you. We are smaller, and softer, and we cannot run as fast as men. We know you can grab us, and we would struggle to get away. We know if you hit us, we’ll go down. We know if you decide to kill us, there’s not much we can do.”

I have two children, one female and one male, both very small still, yet we have already embarked on our mission to ensure our children are decent human beings. I’m not so worried about our girl child: I know how to bring up a strong female because I am one… Hmmm, writing that sentence makes me wonder if I therefore don’t need to be worried about the boy child either because his dad is a gentle and kind feminist man and he certainly has strong opinions on how our son should be, just as I do. But, of course, I do, I worry about both of them, it’s a huge responsibility to guide another human being through life.

So what are we doing to ensure our kids are never even close to a point where anyone could suggest their behaviour is bordering on sexual harassment? Well, from day one we have strictly upheld the mantras of ‘no means no’ and ‘my body, my rules’. Our three year old daughter regularly tells us she doesn’t want a goodnight kiss. It is hard to not ignore this statement and just kiss those delicious cheeks, but if we ignored her, what message would we be sending her? That she can say no but we don’t hear her because our wishes to touch her are more important than her desire not to be touched? Not a chance. I’ll leave without that kiss every time. Our five year old son is an extremely loving child and he often just wants to cuddle or kiss his sister. We are very clear with him too. He must abide by her wishes and if she does not wish to be touched, he has to stop immediately. We have also made it clear to family and friends that if our children don’t wish to hug or kiss them they don’t have to do so. We explain why and, thus far, have not found anyone who disagrees with our explanation. Likewise, when we meet other children I always ask permission before I give them a kiss and if they say no, I respect that no.

Because if my small children don’t imbibe these fundamental life lessons now, if they don’t take them to the very fibres of their beings then either could end up as harassers or being harassed. Of course, it’s impossible to imagine my beautiful five year old boy ever taking photos up someone’s skirt but I want more for him than just being a guy who doesn’t act like that. I want a world where my son truly understands that his size (for he will be tall and strong) and his actions may well be intimidating to women. I need him to be the kind of man who just knows that you don’t walk up behind a woman on a dark night, I need him to know he must never make a sexist joke or say anything about another’s appearance that could make them feel belittle and if a woman (or man) asks him to stop, he stops, no hesitation.

We constantly try to model the behaviour we want our kids to learn. We want them to be the type of people who call out bad behaviour when they see it. We need them to understand that silence in the face of someone else’s poor choices is akin to complicity. If we see racism or harassment, we are obliged to say something. The other day I called out a white woman making racist comments. I didn’t have a choice in this matter. She was being racist and I am teaching my children that we stand up to this sort of behaviour to try and make the world a better place.

Let’s be clear: my kids are still tiny. There is only so much we can do with them at this stage but as they get bigger we will continue our to ensure our messages are age appropriate. I wanted to write a list of things we’ll do as they grow but I can’t. I can’t tell you what I don’t yet know how to do. What I do know is that we are living in a time where we have a real opportunity to help stamp out this insidious problem of male dominance over women and teaching our children about consent is the very least we can do.