Innocence. Such a revered, magical state of being that exists within our young children. It’s something we clasp onto as parents, not wanting to (unnecessarily) burst their bubbles. So we question ourselves. We raise them in this world fraught with affliction and cling to the promise of something better that their innocence represents.
Until one day of course, when you realize that perhaps what you’re holding onto isn’t all that realistic. That perhaps you aren’t doing your child(ren) any favors. That you might be setting them up for a rude awakening or a whole lot of confusion. At least that’s how it’s been for me as my children grow up and learn words to form sentences and ask questions. Not that any of us have it figured out, especially when it comes to the tough stuff.
It was a Saturday morning and we were wrestling through a pile of sunshine-splattered duvets and tangled sheets. I was grateful for the sheer magnitude of all that sunshine, spilling in through our bedroom window. I was hungry for it, during this winter of never-ending sickness and more hours of darkness than light. Thirsty much like I am for the cuddles that my children have become accustomed to bestowing upon us each morning as they tumble into our bed, all legs and feet, hands and mouths. So many kisses. So many tickles. That should be it, yes? This is that fleeting, magical time we’re supposed to savor because it slips by so fast. And just like that my little guy, at five-and-a-half years old wanted a very specific low-down on how babies are made and where they come from. He thought it was absolutely HIL-A-RIOUS that the hole a baby comes out of is called a “vagina”! I mean, when your kid asks such a pointed question as to which hole, you kind of take the opportunity to be honest with them and get some of it out of the way right then and there because it only gets more complicated when it comes to having, “The Talk” with kids, right?
So we laughed and laughed and I took a picture in my mind of that moment. I lived vicariously through my son — the thought that everything can be so hilariously simple as sperm swimming, birth canals, vaginas, placentas, and babies. That’s the easy part. The fun stuff to talk about. In the back of my mind and heart in the way that only a survivor knows are the interwoven, related issues to The Talk that I dread discussing. Last year came to a close filled with stories of sexual violence, from women, in increasing numbers. The sexual misconduct and consent accusations against Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi hit close to home as someone whom many had invited into their homes, for years, every single day via the radio waves. The mounting rape allegations against Bill Cosby uprooted and disturbed many who grew up watching and admiring him. There is no escaping it these days, it’s pervasive within social media and pop culture. There were videos uploaded to YouTube of young girls being raped and even younger girls taking their own lives in the face of sexual assault, pressure, and misconduct. It was everywhere and it still is.
So you see, sexual conduct and consent are topics that as a parent, I just can’t tune out. It all starts somewhere. Trying to help our children make sense of this difficult world hits closest to home when it involves kids. How do we, as parents, have The Talk when the talk includes gender equality, sexual violence, and consent?
I’ve given this a lot of thought. I don’t think there’s ever only one talk that we have with our kids around the time that they hit puberty. I think it’s an ongoing conversation that grows and evolves as our children do, starting in kindergarten. As a mother of two young children, aged three and five, much of what they learn right now happens visually and I get overwhelmed with everything that they could see and take in through the media, music, and fashion. I monitor their online presence right now, obviously, because they are so young. I’m constantly turning down the radio as soon as the news comes on, aware of how intently they listen to it. The internet culture is a rather disturbing thing when you’re a parent.
I watch how they play and it has nothing to do with being a helicopter mom. I’m already talking to them about being aware of their environment and how they’re treating one another, and even how they react to others in group settings. I’m careful with how I choose to intervene and not to intervene. Right now, their father and I are teaching them about personal space and respecting one another’s bodies as private and sacred. Otherwise known as autonomy, bodily integrity, and consent. We don’t make excuses for them, or their behavior. There are consequences to negative physical behavior, aside from, kids will be kids or even worse, boys will be boys. We talk about human interaction and how to treat one another in un-gendered ways. We should all be teaching children that they are responsible for their actions in equal measure. I see a lot of teaching young girls to change what they are doing instead of directing the lesson of changing behavior towards young boys.
I want to do as much as I can to address these issues. Because they are going to enter into spaces where other kids haven’t had these types of conversations. Conversations about consent in age-appropriate ways. Why shouldn’t we be dissecting how we teach children to behave? I’m acutely aware that how fathers and men are depicted in the media these days is quite dire. Frat culture has become a disgusting example of excuses. It’s all related. The bad media representations of gender and polarized images of men and women matter because whether we want to admit it or not, the systemic exclusion of women starts at a very early age.
Of course I’m not discussing the harsh realities of rape and sexual violence with my kids right now — but that doesn’t mean I should avoid it either. I think that ideas on misogyny and sexual misconduct and awareness start to develop at a young age. These are after all, the the most formative years of a child’s development. It’s not so far-fetched to understand that they’re picking up on behaviors with nothing but years to master if we ignore them for long enough.