Being a feminist mother of a (white) son sometimes involves a different approach to that of parenting daughters that goes beyond the strange things that happen in their nappies (how naive I was before I learned baby boners are a thing). As well as teaching him about things like open-mindedness and different identities, I think consent is one of the most important lessons I can give him. Many of my parenting strategies have come about by accident, or adaptation, or simply in absence of having made a deliberate choice, but consent is one of the things I’ve focused on since an early age. That, and teaching him how to make his own breakfast so I can sleep in on Saturday mornings. Priorities.
How have I approached teaching consent? Three main ways:
1. Respecting his choices about his body.
When he says “no, I don’t want a cuddle,” I don’t cuddle him. I console myself by crying over baby photos. When he says “no, I don’t want to wear a jacket,” I don’t threaten him. I just take one with us for when he realises it’s cold. When he says “I want to wear a pink dress” I say “you look wonderful!” and post pictures on Facebook because fuck gender norms. When other people try to force him into doing something he doesn’t want to do, I defend him. If someone hurts him we talk about how yuck it feels when someone touches you in a way you didn’t give permission for. His body, his choice.
2. Insisting that he respects my choices about my body.
If I say I don’t like the way he’s touching me (perhaps he’s climbing over me, or crashing into me, or – when he was younger – licking me, eww) and he doesn’t stop, I immediately remove myself or him from the situation. Ideally he just stops because I’m probably being lazy on the couch and don’t want to get up, but sometimes I move. Sometimes he cries because he wants to be close to me and that’s how he is expressing it at that moment. So I explain (again and again) that I love him, but I don’t want to be touched in that way at that time, and he has to listen to that. Every time. Every no means no. Sometimes he accidentally hurts me by throwing himself at me for a hug. I don’t get angry, because it was an accident, I just explain that if he’d asked first I would have been ready and then we wouldn’t have bumped heads. (I’m amazed I’m not covered in bruises sometimes, with the amount he bumps into me with his bony knees or hard head.) The point is, I don’t have to put up with feeling unhappy about the way I’m being touched just because he is my child. He doesn’t have the right to use my body however he wants just because I love him. My body, my choice.
3. Checking in and reminding him about respecting others.
I ask questions like “did Isla enjoy that game?” and “did Hugo say you could do that?” to make sure that he is considering the feelings of others. When he was younger I would step in if he was hurting or scaring another child. That never happens anymore. He is always considerate towards friends and strangers, from babies to adults.
Don’t get me wrong, we are affectionate, and this is not a thing I nag him about. But when the opportunity comes up to remind him of choice, permission, respect, care, and not waking his mother early on Saturdays, I take it. Teaching my son about consent is my gift to the next generation of (mainly) women. While I respect his body and his autonomy, he learns to respect mine, and everyone else’s. Love doesn’t give you the right to touch someone’s body whenever and however you want. Love means caring, and checking in. Teaching my son that he can say “no,” and insisting he asks for a “yes,” means that he will hopefully have a respectful, loving relationship one day, rather than a toxic, aggressive one.
As he gets older I plan to teach him about standing up for others, to broaden the scope of consent and respect. I expect him to be the kind of person who calls out bullshit when he sees it, and stands up against violence. I think that is an important task for men in a world where women are so often vulnerable. That lesson begins with defending him when others are unfair or invasive towards him, and will expand to become a more explicit and complex conversation as his understanding deepens. For every person who has ever been assaulted or felt physically or sexually intimidated, controlled, or used, I am teaching my son consent.