Not too long ago I was speaking with a loving dad, and he proudly told me how he was teaching his 8 year old daughter to defend her boundaries.
“My daughter is so fierce and I love it! I poke her and tickle her and if she says “no” I poke her and tickle her some more until she yells or hits me. It’s great! She’s really learning to defend herself and no man is ever going to push her around. She’s a fighter!”
I expressed my admiration for his intention to help his daughter be a fighter. I get it; it’s a tough world and she’s more than likely going to experience sexual harassment sometime over the next several years. Knowing how to defend herself is important.
And then I asked him if it might also be valuable to model what respecting her boundaries looks and feels like, so that she can understand how men should be treating her? I’m very happy to say that he was open to the idea.
It is important to prepare our kids for the possibility of having their personal autonomy deliberately, or even unintentionally, crossed by others. But in my opinion, it’s even more important to model respecting their boundaries on a regular and consistent basis. In this way they will know in their bones what it feels like to have their boundaries honored by those closest to them, and they will notice the difference when that is not happening.
The truth is that most sexual violence is perpetrated by people that the victim knows and trusts. If a person is accustomed to having their boundaries disregarded, challenged and crossed by the people that they know best, there is the risk that a future boundary violation could feel familiar and normal, and not raise a red flag. Or worse, it could feel like home.
So how can we respect and honor our kid’s boundaries, and model what consent should look like? I’ve talked before about how we can thank people when they express their boundaries to us, because we realize that that’s often difficult for them to do, and because we want them to know that it’s safe to express their wants and needs to us. As parents and caregivers, we can also thank the young people in our lives for clearly communicating their changing boundaries to us.
This doesn’t mean that we have to thank our kids for telling us that no, they don’t want to do the dishes! Rather, when they let us know that they’ve noticed a changing boundary around their bodily autonomy, or their privacy, that is the moment to appreciate the skills that they’re demonstrating:
The skill of noticing their boundary
The skill of knowing they can change their minds about their boundaries
The skill of communicating that changing boundary effectively
Your appreciation could sound like, “I’m so glad you let me know that you’re too old for me to tug on your ponytail like I used to. I don’t want to do something that bothers you and I want to know what your physical boundaries are. Thanks for letting me know.”
Or it could sound like this. “Thanks for letting me know that you want your bedroom door closed now. You’re getting older and it’s normal for you to want more privacy. I appreciate you noticing that and letting me know what you need.”
For me, respecting my daughters’ boundaries has been one of the big challenges I’ve had with both boundaries and parenting in my life. It’s a constant process of letting go from having to take care of every single bodily need when they are infants, all the way to watching them drive away for the first time right after they’ve gotten their driver’s license, but long before you feel fully confident about their ability to drive!
It’s so easy to forget to ask before fixing their hair, or straightening their clothes. These habits are hard to break! And sometimes, especially when they are entering adolescence, they may waver back and forth between wanting to be treated like an adult, and wanting to be coddled as if they were still younger.
It’s all normal and common, and within that wavering, there could be many opportunities to appreciate and describe how they are successfully noticing and expressing their changing boundaries. And once they’re accustomed to being appreciated when they express their needs and wants around their bodily autonomy, they are going to notice that something is wrong if someone pushes back or challenges those boundary expressions.
If you’ve had talks with your kids about what to do when someone doesn’t respect their boundaries, they’ll know what to do when they notice that it’s happening. But the first step is noticing, and if that push back or disrespect feels familiar or reminds them of home, they may not even notice when it’s essential that they do.
And please, be sure to assure them that if someone does cross their boundaries, that it’s not their fault, and that they can come tell you about anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, or shameful. Make sure to be clear that nothing that can happen will make you ashamed of them, and that no matter how embarrassing it might feel to them, that you will understand and support them, not blame them. Be sure to let them know that friendships and relationships that start out loving and supportive, can take a turn for the worse. Let them know that someone who really cares about them won’t try to control them, or make them do, or share, things they don’t want to. And that even if they love or care for someone, that doesn’t excuse those kinds of behaviors. Manipulative people may tell victims things like, “If I show these pictures to your parents they won’t love you anymore.” Make sure your kids know that nothing can make you stop loving them.
In our book, “Creating Consent Culture: A Handbook for Educators”, my co-author Marcia Baczynski and I talk about hearing no graciously. To my mind, it is the most important consent skill. When we model hearing no graciously, we give our kids the gift of an embodied sense of what it feels like to have their boundaries honored.
One of my larger projects over the next several months will be to put together a book just for parents and caregivers, with more practical tips like this. Have feedback or questions? I’d love to hear from you!
Hearing no graciously, expressing our boundaries clearly, and feeling confident to change our minds, are just a few of the essential consent skills that we share in the book. To learn more about the workshops available, and the book, visit:
Order the book here!