What a start to summer. The recent spate of devastating news, spanning from campus assault to terrorism, happened to coincide with my kids’ final, happy days of nursery school, second grade, and fourth grade. Even as I cheered their crossing of milestones, I grieved inwardly about how short-lived these innocent days really are. It won’t be long until they aren’t just hearing scary news in the background, but understanding many of its deep, dark complexities.
One thing I’m trying to learn through writing this blog is how to talk to kids about big, difficult subjects in age-appropriate ways. I sense, from conversations with experts like Ellen Braaten, Ph.D and others, that there’s a window of opportunity to candidly connect with our kids that tends to get stuck as they enter their teens and naturally crave more space and privacy. And as details emerged about the Stanford sexual assault case, some friends and I discussed whether it was possible to start familiarizing kids with the concept of consent in early and mid-childhood—in other words, before sex enters the picture. As the parent of sons, I was especially interested in how to teach boys about boundaries—both how to recognize and respect them—without compromising their naturally affectionate natures.
Thankfully, other thinkers have offered some extremely helpful wisdom on the subject. In particular, there’s one article, originally posted on Everyday Feminism by a group of four journalists, that even academic psychologists cite as a great primer. Called Healthy Sex Talk, Teaching Kids Consent from 1-21, it was written in 2013, but I haven’t seen it until this week. In case you haven’t either, I’ve pared it down to five key points, here. There are many more age-specific details in the original article. Thanks to Alyssa Royse, Joanna Schroeder, Julie Gillis, and Jamie Utt for thinking about this before most of us were.
Encourage them to ask playmates before embracing them; and don’t force them to hug or kiss anyone else. It doesn’t have to be stiff and formal; simple langauge such as, “Sarah, let’s ask Joe if he would like to hug bye-bye,” just gets a child into a habit of respecting personal space. If Joe resists, be cheerful and suggest a wave, high-five, or a blown kiss. Suggest the same if you have a shy child who’s uneasy about embracing a cuddly friend or relative.
Use every opportunity you can to teach your child to think about how it feels to be in another person’s shoes. Empathy can be taught, and young kids are especially receptive. The authors suggest: “Use language like, ‘I know you wanted that toy, but when you hit Mikey, it hurt him and he felt very sad. And we don’t want Mikey to feel sad because we hurt him.’ Encourage your child to imagine how he or she might feel if Mikey had hit them, instead. This can be done with a loving tone and a big hug, so the child doesn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed.” As kids grow, prompt them to pay attention to friends’ and siblings’ expressions and body language, and occasionally check in to make sure that their companions are okay.
Teach kids to respond immediately to—and freely use—”No” and “Stop.” Whether they are responsible for or the recipient of the unwanted action, even one as seemingly innocuous as nudging or tickling, make sure children understand the sanctity of these words.
Use correct terms for body parts and encourage them to speak matter-of-factly about them. When you take the mystery out of the language, talking frankly about these parts and their function becomes less taboo.
Motivate them to help people in trouble. Even as we distress over the terrible judgment of the young assailant in the Stanford case, we have to feel heartened by the heroic intervention of the graduate students who recognized and stopped the assault. We all want our kids to grow into individuals who step in when someone is struggling, but it may actually take practice. For little kids, authors suggest using family pet as an example (“Oh, it looks like the kitty’s tail is stuck! We have to help her!”) Later, prompt children to intervene or alert a grown-up if they see someone being bullied. Providing them with some sample language to make this tricky situation easier—and lots of props for bravery—helps.