My 5-year-old is becoming quite the ladies man.
As a toddler, he used some of his first words to woo my (adult) friends. Barely walking, he’d fixate on the prettiest woman in the room. He was charming, confident and cute.
Now he’s focusing on girls closer to his age. So much sooner than I imagined, it’s time to talk.
We already talk a lot about kindness and respect. But it’s time to start teaching him about a specific kind of respect — respect for women.
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It’s not too early to teach him about how other people’s bodies aren’t for touching unless they say it’s OK. You need permission to exchange hugs or place your hand on a girl’s back. If she doesn’t want your affection, it can feel like aggression.
This boy will grow into a man. And often, men grow bigger and stronger than women. We’ve seen too many examples in the news of men who use that power to intimidate or assault women.
My oldest has become close friends with a girl at school. They role-play Barbie and Ken each day and pretend to search the classroom for the perfect dream house. One day he came home and said they’d gotten married. Not for pretend. He needed to find a ring, he deadpanned.
Outside of school, he has his eye on a girl four years his senior. She’s tall, graceful and kind. He asked if he was old enough to have a girlfriend. I told him they could be good friends.
I wasn’t prepared for him to develop crushes. I mean, I still have to help him in the bathroom.
When I was his age, I was too nervous to talk to my crushes. I’m sure I never told my parents. They must have assumed I was too young to care about romance and never gave me the talk.
Maybe they should have. Not only to warn me about keeping boundaries, but also to give me words about boundaries to defend myself against people who weren’t respecting them.
I could have used that instruction as a child. Each day on the playground, two boys chased me as I fled in terror.
Whenever they caught me, they’d pin me against a fence or some playground equipment and invade my space, lips puckered as I struggled to wrench free.
Those boys were from good families with good parents. Parents who maybe never thought it necessary to talk with them about respecting boundaries with girls.
Kissing was so embarrassing and taboo, I felt violated. It took me a long time to summon the courage to tell a teacher. But once I did, the boys mostly left me alone. I remember feeling bad for telling on them.
Speaking up was right, and young girls — all girls — should know that. Adults who care should tell them in explicit terms.
What would have happened if I never told? Would those boys have continued their reign of terror over me? Would they have explored other, more violating acts, knowing I wouldn’t talk?
We’ve seen quite a few examples recently of women finding their words in a big way. Remember Gamergate? In August, video game developer Zoe Quinn denounced her industry’s culture of misogyny. Her courage was met with anonymous rape and death threats.
Then in October, a woman in New York tallied more than 100 verbal assaults by men as she walked outdoors for 10 hours, secretly videotaping such slurs as “Hey baby,” “Hey beautiful” and “God bless you, mami.” Her video went viral. Detractors — women among them — snapped that she should lighten up and take a compliment.
Bill Cosby fits in here, too. His long career built on family values has drowned in a crescendo of women’s voices, blaring that he raped and assaulted them. It took decades for their chorus to sing loud enough for the masses to notice.
We need to start giving girls the words — and the confidence to use them — when they’re young. It starts when we give babies the correct terms for their anatomy, and we propel them through childhood with a straightforward conversation about sexuality.
That conversation is just as important for boys. When my children playfully tackle me out of the blue, as they so often do, I have begun to reframe my response.
Sometimes it’s OK to roughhouse, I say, but you have to make sure that the other person wants to do it. Instead of “Stop — you could hurt me!” I say, “You’re touching my body in a way that I don’t like. You could hurt me, and you need to stop.”
If we give young children the words and the whys, we can hope that when they’re older, they’ll understand what’s really at stake.