I was laying in bed with my oldest son tonight, like every other night, reading books. When we finished, he asked me to snuggle him. I rolled over and put my arm around him and I could feel his little five year old body melt into mine. I pulled him closer and kissed his the top of his head. It was then that he said, “I don’t want kisses. You should ask before you kiss someone to make sure it’s okay. Sometimes I like kisses, and sometimes I do not like kisses and you kissed me and I didn’t want to be kissed because that’s my body rule.”
Body rule. It’s a phrase that is repeated constantly in our home. We use body rules as a way to maintain autonomy over our own selves, as a way to learn to control impulses, and mostly as a way to teach consent in an age-appropriate and meaningful manner. Consent. It’s a hot topic. And rightly so, seeing as so many men feel as though women are theirs for the taking. I mean, seriously—Harvey Weinstein, the viral #metoo campaign, Brock Turner, Bill Cosby, the catcalling, the raping, the assault, the fact that our goddamn president has been accused 15 times of sexual assault, taken to court for it, and admits that he treats women like property because he’s famous. We all know what he said after that. Women are not property. And it is imperative that we teach our sons and daughters how to manage their bodies.
For me, this begins at the very beginning. Body autonomy is a right. My children do not have to kiss, hug, snuggle, or touch anyone they don’t want to. On the other hand, they are not to express their emotions in a physical way without getting permission first. Now, this second part is tricky. Tricky because kids are kids, and therefore impulsive. So throughout the twos, threes, fours, and now fives, this is a rule that I am consistently reminding them about. It happens when they are wrestling and someone says stop. When someone says stop, when do you stop? Immediately. If they don’t stop immediately, we recite this and discuss why they didn’t.
My oldest has never been a biter or a hitter (something my youngest is making up for lost time with) so I haven’t had to correct that behavior as much. But he is a lover. So much so, that I have bruises on my body from his tight hugs and the way he rubs all over me like a feral cat. I usually welcome physical affection from my sons. I adore them to pieces and I want them to know that I am their solace and their comfort. But, I too have body rules. And sometimes by the end of the day, after taking orders from these tiny humans all day long, the whining and grabbing and touching is too much. And so I communicate my body rules and they have to follow them.
I am also a huge fan of books. We read a lot of books to help my boys understand how to manage themselves in the world. It’s no different for consent. Some of our favorites are Huggapotamus, Personal Space Camp, and I Just Don’t Like the Sound of No!. These books teach the importance of keeping our hands to ourselves, of controlling our impulses, and respecting the way our friends wish to be touched. This is consent for children. Start small. Let them have their own body rules and teach them how to respect others’ body rules. By engraining this in my kids as young children, bringing up the word consent as they learn more about sex and start dating and all of those amazing things I am just SO looking forward to happens, it will be a no-brainer for them. It’s just the grown up word for a very important concept.
By introducing these concepts at such a young age, we can discuss how it feels when someone rejects an advance of physical affection and process these emotions. Last year, my oldest had a girlfriend. Let’s call her Maggie. And Maggie was his girlfriend for a while, over a month (they were 4, for perspective) but one day he came home absolutely devastated. After a bit of back and forth, I found out that Maggie decided she didn’t want to be T’s girlfriend anymore, she wanted to be Henry’s girlfriend. And my son finished the story of his first little heartbreak, “And isn’t that so mean? She is supposed to be my girlfriend and she is being mean and I am mad at her.”
My first instinct was to completely agree with him that Maggie was mean and she should be his girlfriend and just go off on the little girl that broke his heart. But I paused. And I thought about her, and how this wasn’t about my son, but about her. And I said, “Sweetie, I know you are feeling so sad. I would feel sad too. And it’s okay to be sad for as long as you want because your feelings are important. But so are Maggie’s. And she didn’t choose Henry to be her boyfriend because she is mean, she chose him to be her boyfriend because she liked him. And it’s her choice.” He was sad for a bit longer, but we talked about it the next day and he had moved on. Fickleness of youth, am I right? But he heard me. He got my message. And little by little, he started to understand our body rules too.
And as we laid in bed tonight, he had no problem calling me out on disrespecting his body rules. I apologized and said that he was right, and I was sorry for not following his body rules and I promised not to do it again. As he moved his body away from mine he said, “I forgive you mommy. Because I love you forever and ever and ever. Just not your kisses.” Fair enough, kid. Fair enough.