Anti-Rape Training Begins at Birth

daddy and kids

My firstborn son E is an extremely cuddly kid. He has always wanted snuggles and hugs and kisses, in good times and in bad. It’s great for me, as his mom, to know I can calm him by taking him in my arms, even now that he’s five; and honestly, I’ll be heartbroken when he decides he’s too big to snuggle.

When E’s baby sister was born, he fell in love with her almost instantaneously. Naturally, he wanted to kiss her silky cheeks, put his face right next to hers, and get his arms right around her warm wriggly little body. ALL THE TIME.

My daughter is a snuggly one too, but in a very different way. She wants hugs and kisses – but only on her terms. Even as a tiny infant, if she decided she was getting over-nuzzled, she’d screech and flail her arms in self-defense.

Right away, we had to start coaching E: “That’s how she says ‘No.’ She’s telling you that she needs some space.”

These instructions got more and more specific:

  • If she screams, it means No.
  • If she pushes you, it means No.
  • If she hits you, it means No.
  • If she thrashes around – as far as you’re concerned – it means No.

Often, he really didn’t want to take that No for an answer. “But… I wanna kiss her!”

So, at three-and-a-half, he was being told, “It’s not about you. That’s her body. It doesn’t matter what you want: she gets to say what happens to it.”

These words, as you can imagine, have a tendency to make my brain jump ahead a decade or so, when they will be even more relevant… which is a little scary.

The teaching is not just for him. I also want her to feel confident that the boundaries she sets for herself are valid.

It was really hard, when she was a newborn, to moderate my own instinct to cuddle her every time she needed soothing; sometimes it was what she wanted, but sometimes it would make her extra-furious. Her cues were actually very clear, but it still took me a long time to get used to following them, after the habits I’d formed with E.

Now that she’s two-and-a-third, if she gets really angry about something, we all know that she needs her space. She will tell us when she’s ready for physical comforting. She’ll rage around on the floor (or wherever), and eventually she’ll say, “Can I have a hug?” or, heartbreakingly, “Can you make me happy?”, which we’ve learned also means she’d like to be snuggled.

And E knows that he is expected to ask permission to give her kisses and hugs. He often does say, “Can I please have a kiss?” Nonetheless, he’ll sneak ’em in without consent as often as he can get away with it. And we know this because if he tries it and she’s not in the mood, she’ll shriek and whack him one.

E will cry, “She hit me!” and I’ll say, “Were you in her space without asking?” If the answer’s yes, then we’re in the grey area of our “No hitting” policy.

Here, my imagination jumps again to the teenage versions of my kids (not that I’m ready for that world… but it’s gonna happen). Yes, we are teaching our children that hitting each other is not the way to solve conflicts, but if there were a boy touching my sixteen-year-old AB in some unwanted way, I hope to God she would have the conviction to make her boundaries clear. If she someday feels she has to scream or scratch or hit someone who’s not taking No for an answer, then I absolutely want her to do it.

{Side note: Reason #297 Why I Love “Frozen”: Boy actually asks girl permission to kiss her. Groundbreaking in its genre.}

Especially since having a daughter, I’ve often recalled an anecdote from a friend about her little girl and how she and her husband bribed her to give her uncle a goodbye hug. It was kind of a joke, in which the daughter was happy to score a jujube, but they later decided to stop the practice. If she was getting a “no” feeling from an encounter, she should have the right to decline hugs.

I now find myself thinking along these lines in situations I never considered before. For instance, when you ask a toddler for a hug and get refused, it’s almost automatic to pull an exaggerated sad face so that the benevolent child will take pity on you and give you a hug. And to be honest, AB loves that game – she likes to deny her Daddy kisses, and then grin and say, “Can you cry?”

But dammit, you know there are teenage boys out there pulling sad faces and hackneyed “it-hurts-if-we-don’t-go-all-the-way” bullsh*t on inexperienced girls – and it works often enough. Guilt is a powerful tool, if not a legitimate one.

I even sometimes get touchy about those moments when there’s a crazy tickle-fest and I hear an uproarious “No! No! Heeheeheeheeheeheehee!! No!” Yes, I KNOW sometimes No kind of means Yes. I trust my husband to know the difference between happy screams and had-enough, when it comes to our kids.

But part of me feels like ANY physical contact should immediately cease the moment the words “No” or “Stop” come into play. Because those words mean what they mean, for good reason; is it really up to someone else to interpret if that’s a “real” No? That’s a dangerous road. Furthermore, if you don’t actually mean No when you say it, you’re diluting its purpose.

I don’t want to risk subtleties and implications being lost on my wee kids. We need to use the words we mean, and mean the words we use.

I probably sound a bit paranoid. Or maybe a lot. It’s not that I want my daughter to freak out whenever someone touches her, or my son to worry about every gesture of affection he wants to give. But if the Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby fiascoes have taught us anything, it’s that some people have very warped ideas about consent – what it looks like, and whether it’s necessary. And it’s also been made clear that rape culture is alive and well in North America in 2015.

Yesterday I was reading about a petition launched by two Grade 8 girls in Ontario, advocating for the provincial Health curriculum to include lessons on consent (above and beyond the “Feeling Yes, Feeling No” stuff in the primary grades). Apparently, there was outcry by certain conservative parent groups when expectations around consent were proposed by the government in 2010 – as is the case whenever the Ministry of Education proposes talking about sexuality as if it’s real and relevant to kids.

Any time there’s pushback from parents about sex ed, it confirms for me that it’s still absolutely necessary – and in this case, that more is needed. The topic of consent is crucial.

What an amazing thing, for two young girls to take this initiative and understand its importance. Better yet, it worked. Premier Kathleen Wynne announced the changes to the curriculum earlier this month. (To those who are outraged that their objections – the ones that made McGuinty back down – didn’t work on Wynne, I say: suck it up. Your kids will know about this stuff one way or another. Times are changing.)

As for my household, I want to be clear: it’s full of hugs, kisses, snuggles, and general cuddliness. That aspect of our lives is really important to both my kids: they are both very attached to their goodnight and goodbye hugs and kisses, with each other as well as with us. (And AB is only content with proper hugs, no half-hugs: “I need my arms around his back!” It’s adorable.) I’m optimistic that both my children will find themselves in physically and emotionally safe, affectionate, and satisfying relationships (MANY years from now).

And until then (please, please), may their awareness of personal boundaries protect them both from harm, and from harming.

*To read about the curriculum changes, please click here.*

*If you are interested in signing the petition to reinforce the support, please click here.*

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21 thoughts on “Anti-Rape Training Begins at Birth

  1. KO Lord says:

    Another excellent article! It is never too early to start talking about appropriate limits to touching, although obviously what is said will depend on the age and maturity level of the audience. When the Ontario government attempted to update the provincial health curriculum in 2010, I responded in favor of the decision in the “comments” section of as many newspaper articles as I could. I still think that it is a mistake that the government caved in to the ill-advised objections which caused the changes to be torpedoed. I hope that this time parents have matured. People can pay an exorbitant price for ignorance.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Thank you, KO. Such true words. It was so overtly cowardly to scrap all those progressive curriculum changes, when they were being introduced to protect and instruct the children. Callous as it might sound, fearful and/or ignorant parents are the reason sex ed is taught in schools (instead of just at home).

  2. emerge says:

    I also have to say it’s funny that AB does the “Can you cry?” thing. I remember E doing that – although in his case it might have been more often “Cry!” Let’s hope that this game can happen without confusing the issue… ?

  3. Quin says:

    I completely agree – kids should get as much say as possible about their bodies and it should start as soon as you can figure out what they want. There are going to be cases where they don’t get a choice – yes you HAVE to wear boots and a coat to play in the snow – so they should have as much control as they can when they can.

    I think tickling is a perfect example of when kids need to lead when it stops and decide if it starts again and that No needs to always mean No. Tickling is one of those invasive things adults do with kids and not with other adults and often don’t stop when kids say stop. Tickling is pretty intense physical experience, and most adults don’t like it if its done to them.

    I tell my kids that if they say ‘No’ or ‘Stop’ I will stop. They need to say something else if they don’t mean for it to end the tickling. And they have to tell me if they want to start again. And they do: they will say Again or Go if they still want to play. My kids will also set limits: ‘tickle me, but not on the neck’. With friends’ kids I will tickle lightly and then stop and ask them if they want more. With small kids I will sign more too as a question. Many friends kids will come back up to me and sign more or say more when they want some more tickling. And they love that they are in control of the game. So we all still get to play tickling games if the kids enjoy it, but the kids are always in control which makes it way more fun for them. And they are also learning to expect that their no for their body means no.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Quin, thank you for your thoughts on this. I LOVE this tickling game, with all its settings – it’s the perfect compromise. You are so right – tickling IS totally intense, and as adults we refuse it any time and we don’t always grant the courtesy of refusal to kids.

  4. emerge says:

    I remember being tickled a lot by my dad when I was little (diggy…diggy…diggy!) but only vaguely remember the feelings of either enjoying it or not enjoying it. I think sometimes I wasn’t even sure which way I felt about it – maybe both ways at once. Which is also an important time to be able to say Stop and have it stop, I think, and maybe that would help with learning what you do and don’t want.

  5. Auntie CL says:

    “Let thy ‘yea’ be ‘yea’ and thy ‘nay’ be ‘nay’.”
    Good advice everywhere, any time.
    This is an excellent post, with very thoughtful parenting going on. It’s kind of cool that you have 2 such different children to help you to anticipate more kinds of scenarios and give them more useful instruction. I also really like Quin’s description of setting limits on tickling games – those were an issue for my kids, too, not at home, but with close family. If we wish to treat others with respect, it must begin at birth and at home, and extend everywhere. And teaching our children to set limits and mean them and have control over their own bodies (beyond the snow boots etc) is the other side of that. This is a very wise post and i’m glad you’ve written it. Thank you.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Thank you, Auntie – you’re right, it’s good and thought-provoking, having two very different personalities as well as genders… all kinds of dynamics come into play. I’ll bet you found yourself in a similar situation, once upon a time!

  6. What an amazing post. This is absolutely the way we should be teaching kids about boundaries and you have found a brilliant way to reinforce these issues from both the ‘giver of the touch’ and the ‘receiver of the touch’. Both of these boundaries are so important for children to understand and for adults to ultimate respect.

  7. Mama says:

    This is an important post! I hope everyone who reads it shares it. If the difference in the rape culture by the time kids E’s and AB’s ages reach their teens sufficiently reflects the difference in awareness of these issues that is growing among today’s young parents, we may have a better society in ten or fifteen years.

    As for tickling, as the tickler I’m always content with a quick tickle as a sort of gesture of affection, and then I’m done. (Possibly this is because I really did NOT enjoy being tickled when I was a kid.) I wonder why it’s the dear and loving — and beloved — daddies who are usually the persistent ticklers? And whether they should ask themselves this question? I’m not casting blame here — just suggesting a higher level of awareness can’t hurt.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      That’s a great article! And I’m glad to hear it’s being thought about, and grappled with, as you say. I think many aspects of this have been just… automatic, for a long time.

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