Warning: The following contains some disturbing content and may be triggering.
photography by Shandra Massier
We’ve heard that word a lot in the media recently. And I am glad some of us are talking about it. It’s about damn time.
To the rational mind, the concept of consent doesn’t seem so hard to grasp: “Don’t do anything to another person unless they want and ask you too.”
It seems pretty simple.
Then why does society, in general, have such a hard time understanding this concept?
In terms of sexual harassment, I would consider myself very lucky – and I’ve been groped, propositioned, harassed, catcalled, and threatened with sexual violence.
“Lucky?” you say?
I’ve never suffered from sexual violence. So yes, even though I’ve experienced those other terrible things, I haven’t suffered from what I can only imagine would be utterly devastating and life- altering.
I am a woman and because of it, men have felt nothing less than ownership over my person and have demonstrated that to me. I think if you asked most women, they would say the same thing. A tragic percentage (1 in 3) would be triggered and maybe wouldn’t be able to say anything at all.
It is evident, history, nor the present, hasn’t been kind to the female sex. Atrocities have been perpetrated on us for as long as anyone can remember. We live something that is defined as “rape culture” becuase every woman, at some point in their life, has felt imminent fear of being sexually assaulted.
I mourn for my 2 daughters. I cant even for a second, dwell on the thought of either of them being hurt like that. Yet, I KNOW they will most likely face some form of abuse for the simple fact they were born female.
I’m going to be honest, when I ponder this it agitates a hopeless despondency. Any small reflection on this terrible situation will easily illuminate some of its root causes: patriarchy, the subjugation of women, women used as commodities, the hypersexualization of women’s bodies for profit, and harmful gender stereotypes, to name a few.
But what can I do about it? How can one person change anything?
Here is the thing. As a caregiver to children, I have the opportunity to mould a certain percentage of the next generation.
Am I doing the things I CAN do in order to end female subjugation?
Gut check time.
As guardians of the next phase of humanity we need to pause and seriously consider if our actions or inactions perpetuate the cycle of harmful ideologies. The fact is, these things are taught to us, not only by the greater society in which we live, but in our own homes.
We as care-givers have a moral obligation to teach our children of whichever gender, what consent is and what it looks like.
Ok. You may be asking:
How the heck am I supposed to teach my 5-year-old about consent?
What does that conversation look like and is it even appropriate?
With all things child related, I think the best approach is to break down the themes of what we are trying to impart on them. We need to relate these concepts in ways they can conceptualize without ever having to mention the big scary adult problems they are too young to face.
We need to get on our kid’s level. Look at the world through their eyes. Care about the things they care about. Then we need to look for parallels; ways to engage them on levels they understand and provide them with safe entry into themes that will shape their perspectives. These early perspectives are the foundation on which they will form their adult opinions.
It is our responsibility as caregivers to lay a ground work of kindness, compassion, respect, and a sense of social justice that our children can build on, and hopefully, they, with this knowledge, can go on to lessen the evil in this world.
Today I’m going to talk about how we use tickling (yes tickling!) to create a family culture of consent.
I don’t pretend to have this whole parenting thing figured out. I make mistakes every day, but I hold on to the fact that I’ve made a personal choice to constantly work on improving who I am and what I do. Improving my parenting is my number one priority.
That is the one thing I can offer my family: a flawed individual who is committed to constantly TRYING to be better and to love selflessly.
What I’m about to share with you has come as a result of classes I’ve taken and books and articles I have read on the subject. My SO, Andrew is a social worker and is keenly invested in feminism and has researched and trained extensively on childhood development. We’ve talked and brainstormed over the last 9 years about this subject and what we can do as parents to raise our 2 daughters and 2 sons in a family culture of consent.
Teach consent through tickling.
I came from a family that tickled and those are some of the highlights of my childhood. I knew that I would be a tickler and was so excited to be able to play with my children in that way. When Aurora came along, it was a great way for us to bond, and to this day, it’s the highlight of how we spend our play time together.
When Auggie came along, it became apparent at an early age that he was extremely sensitive to any external touch (we realized later that he has a mild sensory processing disorder). Right away, I felt that my tickling him caused him stress and discomfort, and even though I liked to tickle, his reactions told me he didn’t appreciate it. I found other ways to interact and touch him, ways that promoted an affectionate bond, but respected the way his body processes touch.
At bedtime every night, after prayers, Andrew and I spend a few minutes with each kid, individually. We spend time intentionally loving on them, cuddling, offering words of encouragement, and tickling, to help send them off to slumber knowing belonging and contentment. It looks different for every child based on their needs for that day.
My son Asher has always loved being tickled and before he could even say two words, would lay in his crib, lift his arm up and point to his armpit, indicating he wanted to be tickled for his snuggle time. He did this over and over again, and we have lots of laughs at bedtime.
One night, a few years ago, Auggie whispered in my ear that he felt sad because to him, it looked like I was having so much fun tickling the other kids and he felt left out. I explained that I knew he didn’t like tickling when he was a baby and I wanted to respect his body and that’s why I cuddled him instead.
He still looked pretty forlorn, so I asked him if he wanted to try tickling. I said he could tell me where to tickle, how hard to tickle and how long I could tickle. He was excited to try it. The first night, he let me lightly tickle his ribs for exactly 3 seconds. He was ecstatic to participate in the night’s revelry and went to bed feeling included, comforted and empowered.
For Auggie, he wanted to know that he could participate, but on his own terms, in accordance to what his body could handle. Once he felt empowered to dictate the conditions in which I tickled him, he felt comfortable enough to enjoy this form of bonding.
There is incredible synchronicity with this idea and the concept of promoting a culture of consent. It is a great introduction to some of the themes of consent and I would encourage every family to have a conversation about tickling.
Ask your children if they even like tickling. Talk about the parameters in which they appreciate (or don’t appreciate) it. Let them set the boundaries, about when/where and how they would like to be tickled. The conversation is actually a lot more fun than you would expect. Ultimately, make it clear that you want to respect their body and tickling is only fun if EVERYONE is having fun.
Extend this theory to every facet of how you physically interact with your kids. ASK for hugs and kisses, and teach them that if they want to give hugs and kisses they should ask the person in question beforehand. I know some kids are very outwardly affectionate and will PDA with wild abandon.
When Asher was a toddler he would kiss people he had just met and would randomly try to sit on strangers laps. I had to teach him first, about stranger safety, but secondly to ASK someone before he showed them a sign of affection like a hug or a kiss.
I know this may seem weird or there’s a fear that it will remove a sense of spontaneity in some cases, but if that’s something you are concerned about, have a talk with your kids and ask if you are allowed to spontaneously kiss or hug them. If they are receptive, you could agree to periodically check in with them if these spontaneous PDA’s are okay.
We are a very affectionate family and every once in a while I ask the older kids: “Is it ok that I give you lots of kisses? Just want to check in if the PDA is still cool?”
You never know, at some point, it may not be.
But I’m prepared to deal with that when the time comes.
Ultimately, respecting another person’s body is one of the most important lessons we can teach children and it is imperative that we practice and demonstrate that in every way.
As caregivers, it is our moral obligation to teach our children to respect themselves and others.
It is imperative that we build our children’s self-confidence in their bodies and teach them to respect the bodies of others. We need to give them the words and tools to advocate for themselves and advocate for others.
I want our children to know that they can dictate the circumstances of their lives and it begins with dictating the circumstances of their own bodies.
We need to leave a better world for the next generations, and it starts with raising my children with equal parts compassion and resiliency.
I pray that my boys will know sensitivity and respect, and advocate for equality for their sisters. I pray that my daughters not only suffer less harm than their predecessors, but go on to be strong, fierce females who stand up for themselves, because as Maya Angelou puts it: “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”
For further reading on ways we can promote a culture of consent, please see my post: 4 ways practicing body positivty in the home can combat rape culture.
What ways do you foster a culture of consent in your home? Comment!
Let’s start a dialogue on how we can filter out the harmful ideologies that suppress!