a mother is holding her son and giving him a kiss


Why I Ask My 5-Year-Old Son for Permission Before Hugging Him — And Other Ways We Discuss Consent

Nov 9, 2018

I knew that something was wrong when I saw the look on the teacher’s face.

While picking up my son from school last year, I approached the gate to the kindergarten area feeling apprehensive. I could tell from his teacher’s expression that we needed to talk about something. I held my breath, wondering what could have happened during the day. As it turned out, one of my son’s friends — another junior kindergartener — had asked to see my son’s penis and his bum.

For a split second, I wondered if he had complied, perhaps mooning his whole class in the process. But I had nothing to worry about; my son had firmly and loudly said "no," before going to tell his teacher what had happened. “That’s private!” he had insisted. And I exhaled, realizing that my messages about consent, privacy and bodily autonomy had gotten through.

Relevant Reading: It's Not a Sex-Ed Curriculum, It's a Health Curriculum, And Our Kids Need It

I am, like many parents, thinking a lot about consent these days. High-profile sexual assault cases (think Cosby and Weinstein) and changes to the Ontario sex-ed curriculum (including the removal of consent language) have led to many discussions among parents online about what kids should be learning, when and from whom.

While the idea of consent as it relates to sex is obviously not something that I’ve discussed with a five-year-old, talking to my son about his body and the concept of consent started long before his first day of kindergarten. In all honesty, it began as an effort to keep him safe. According to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, one in 10 children will be victims of sexual abuse before the age of 18. As a parent, that statistic is terrifying — especially as you’re about to send your baby out “into the world” for the first time. But rather than become consumed by fear, my husband and I focused on safety and education.

"As it turned out, one of my son’s friends — another junior kindergartener — had asked to see my son’s penis and his bum."

We have always talked to my son about the parts of his body using proper names, and reinforced the message that when it comes to his body, he is the boss. My son understands that if he needs help cleaning himself in the tub, we will ask before washing him. And he knows that his doctor may need to examine parts of his body during checkups, but likewise, she will ask him first. We let him know that he doesn’t have to give hugs and kisses to people if he doesn’t want to, and that includes mum and dad. We’ve also discussed the importance of privacy, and the idea that certain parts of his body shouldn’t be seen or touched by other people. There is no awkward sit-down or big Power Point presentation here. The focus is on guidance, and getting the message across in a way that isn’t scary.

In addition to consent and bodily autonomy for himself, my son has also been learning about respect and boundaries for other people. In his first year of soccer, he spent a good part of every game trying to hug just about everyone on the field. As cute as it is to see a three-year-old go on a hugging spree, it was also one of his first real lessons about consent: just because you want to hug someone doesn’t mean that they want to be hugged. We explained that just like he is the boss of his body, the other kids are the boss of theirs. We reminded him to ask people if they’d like a hug first, and to accept that the answer would not always be yes.

Additional Reading: Thanks to #MeToo, My Daughters Don't Have to Ignore the Kind of Behaviour I Did

Taking “no” for an answer has been a central part of teaching our son about consent, too. “No means no, and stop means now,” is a common phrase in our house, and one that applies to a wide range of situations. If a grandparent is tickling him and he says stop, even if he’s laughing, it stops. If he’s playing tag with a friend and they decide that they don’t want to play anymore, it’s over. To me, this is one of the most important lessons that my son is learning about navigating relationships with the people around him. Not only is he learning to respect other people now, but he’s also learning to become the respectful adult that I hope he will one day be. If “no means no, and stop means now” when it comes to everyday situations throughout his childhood, it should be easy to accept that the same is true in all cases, including intimate situations with a partner in the future.

It’s not perfect, of course — he’s only five, after all, and still getting the hang of things. There are still reminders to ask before hugging, and to stop as soon as he hears the word. Like everything else he’s learning, the lessons will continue and become more complex as time goes by. But that day at the gate reminded me just how important our conversations about consent are, and that when it comes to sharing information that could help keep your child safe, it’s never too soon to start talking.

Are you a writer? Are you a parent? Do you feel differently about this subject? Feel free to reach out to us with a pitch at cbcparents@cbc.ca.

Article Author Alicia McAuley
Alicia McAuley

Read more from Alicia here.

Alicia McAuley is a freelance writer, editor and all-around web nerd who never met a pop culture reference she didn't like. The former editor of a parenting website, these days she shares a home office in the suburbs with her husband, two adorable boys, and two lazy cats. You can find her cracking jokes on Twitter @aliciamcauley and pinning projects for her to-do list on Pinterest.

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