How I Try to Avoid Being Brock Turner’s Parents

Image: Karen Walsh
Image: Karen Walsh

Mothers of boys, I appeal to you. Fathers of sons, I implore you. We need to do better. We need to protect not just the women in our society but the boys in our society. We are the only ones who can do that.

Just because a white, elite rapist at an elite school who is an elite sportsman can get off with a 6 month sentence for rape, doesn’t mean he should. Just because we love our children and can advocate for them, doesn’t mean we always should. Just because we mothers love our sons, doesn’t mean we have the right to place our feelings above those of victims.

Since my son was a baby, I have instilled in him the importance of consent and permission. I have instilled in him respect for others. I have also instilled in him respect for himself. Respect for self and respect for others go hand in hand.

GeekMom Evil Genius Mum is right. Boys will be boys is not the answer. Boys will be boys is the problem. If we want to fight for boys ability to be boys, then we need to be clear what that means, and we need to change its definition.

Boys will be boys is OK when boys are playing in mud.
Boys will be boys is NOT OK when boys are pushing other kids into mud.

Boys will be boys is OK when boys are throwing balls to one another on the playground.
Boys will be boys is NOT OK when boys are throwing ball at one another on the playground.

Boys will be boys is OK when boys are climbing up slides and sliding back down them.
Boys will be boys is NOT OK when boys are shoving while climbing up slides and pushing while sliding down them.

Boys will be boys if OK when boys turn that crooked twig into a fake gun.
Boys will be boys is NOT OK when boys poke each other with that crooked twig to make each other cry.

The distinction here is that boys will be boys is ok when boys are being children. Boys will be boys is not ok when boys are are invading the space and bodies of other children.

In all honesty, this is a lesson that is best taught by saying, “it’s not about boys being boys or girls being girls. It’s about kids generally learning respect for each other and everyone’s bodies.” Boys need to learn that girls have the right to respect their bodies. Boys need to learn that the behaviors that infringe upon that right are wrong. Boys need to be taught not because they are boys but because they are children. Children cannot learn without purposeful instruction. If we want to change rape culture, we, parents, need to lead and teach.

I have meaningfully taught my son lessons about bodies and consent. Sometimes, I have made that specific to girls. Oftentimes, I have generalized it to everyone. Mostly, I make sure that he understands that the same rights he wants are also rights for others.

1. You do not have to hug or kiss anyone, not even mom and dad. Unless my son offers to hug me (rare, he’s not a cuddler), I always ask, “Can I have a hug?” Teaching him by modeling the behavior is more important than just telling him what to do. When parents model a behavior, especially one that places us in a subordinate position, we teach our children that they have power. We need to make sure that we model this for our daughters. They need to know that no matter who has the power or authority, they have the right to say no. We need to teach them that no matter who wants the affection, the person should still be asking for their consent. My son is always allowed to say no to people when they ask for a hug or kiss. If he doesn’t want it, he doesn’t have to give it.

2. In the same vein, you do not have to accept hugs or kisses from anyone, not even mom and dad. You’d think this would be the same as the first one. However, giving consent to act and being allowed to refuse are the flip sides of the same coin. They are similar but different. With the exception of random head kisses as I walk past him and some hair tussling, I almost always remember to ask, “can I give you a hug/kiss?” Often, he’ll say no. That is fair. He has the right, and he should be offered the opportunity, to refuse affection he doesn’t want. No one, not children or adults, not male or female, should be required to provide or accept unwanted affection. We need to make sure that we show our boys the importance of asking for permission. We need them to understand that when someone is in a position of power or authority, that the person still needs to ask for consent. To overcome the sense that rape is enforcing a power structure, we need to subvert that structure. We need to teach our sons that invading personal space makes them weak not powerful.

3. Following up, he has the right to expect an apology for unwanted affection. I may be his mother. I may have carried him in my womb (an unwanted touching if ever there was one kicky fetuspants). However, he should not feel any obligation to allow me or anyone else to touch him unless he is ok with it. If I have kissed him on the head or tussled his hair and if he has expressed a desire for me to not do it, I always apologize. Just because I am the parent does not mean I have the right to invade his space. Teaching our children that they have the right to respect their bodies means that they also need to learn that others have to respect their bodies. If I want him to respect my space, I have to also provide that respect back. Children best understand how to treat others by relating to their own desires and experiences. If we respect our sons’ bodies, they will know how it feels and be able to project that same respect.

4. Piggybacking from that, I have always used language meaningfully with my son. Inevitably, when he pounces on my bed at dark o’clock in the morning, climbing all over me, waking me up in the grumpiest mommy fashion, I will reprimand him by pointing out, “My bed is my space. I have the right to not be touched or to have you jump on me unless I’m aware of it and say it’s ok. You need to respect my space and my body.” Yes, I have actually said that sentence in some form at 6:30am. Why? Because that is the language about bodies and space and respect that we have used since our son was 2 or 3 years old. We started the language early. We teach our children words like happy, sad, yes, and no from an early age. Language has meaning when it is rooted in experience and the unconscious. The earlier we start using the words we want our sons to recognize, the more those words become part of their subconscious behaviors. If we use the words and teach them, our sons will grow up understanding and respecting them.

5. We use those words even when discussing sensitive topics, and we incorporate them into responses to questions about genitals and sex. True story: while driving down the highway one day at 70 mph, I hear from the back, “Mom, so how do babies get born?” Since our son is cognitively on the higher end for some things, we’ve allowed him to watch Brain Pop about the reproductive system. He’s also see the video about puberty. So when he asked, I put the question back to him, then ended up answering more specific questions as he came up with them. However, for each response about how sex works (“like a key in a lock”), I also incorporated, “but only if the girl lets you.” As we neared the end of our conversation, he asked, “So, basically, a boy kind of pees inside a girl’s vagina but only if she says it’s ok.” Let’s just say that despite the science being wrong? I’ll take the win on learning consent. I’ll take it because I know that by the time he’s old enough to really understand and care about sex, the idea of consent will be inculcated in him. I know that sex and permission will be seen as a whole rather than parts. I know that, despite what he ends up doing in his life, I will have done everything within my power to protect him and his partners.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned: Words are important. Teaching words is important. Making sure our kids know what those words mean is important. It’s never too early to start discussing the importance of consent. Kids, all kids, need to learn that consent is something they should both give to others and expect from others. They need to learn that no matter how little they are or how big they are, that no matter their gender, that no matter their age, they have the right to their own bodies. We need to teach all our children, not just our boys, to expect to get consent from others. We need to teach all our children, not just our girls, that they have the right to withhold consent from others. We need to do this because giving and expecting do not live in a vacuum. They are inextricably intertwined. As a woman, I have the responsibility to protect future women from the sense of entitlement that society has so long granted to some men. As a mother, I have a responsibility to teach my son not to expect that entitlement.

We cannot expect rape to stop until we, as parents, take responsibility for teaching the language that stops rape. Teaching our sons that their power comes from controlling their own bodies also teaches them that our daughters’ power comes from that same control.

Parents, I ask you, start talking. Start teaching. Start changing.

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Karen Walsh is a part time, extended contract, first year writing instructor at the University of Hartford. In other words, she's SuperAdjunct, complete with capes and Jedi robe worn during grading. When Karen isn't teaching, she is a freelance writer who works for a variety of marketing clients focusing on a variety of topics, including InfoSec and parenting. She works in order to support knitting, comics, tattoo, and museum membership addictions. She has one dog, one husband, and one son who all live with her just outside of Hartford, CT. She can be reached on Twitter: @kvonhard and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/GeekyKaren/