There is a major problem with looking to colleges and universities to solve the problem of campus sexual assault. If there's any truth in the statistic that one in four undergraduate women are sexually assaulted during their university experience, then waiting until students arrive on campus is too late to start the prevention work. The conversation about healthy sexuality, consent, and bodies must start earlier - as early as kindergarten.
This early education could equip our children to have healthy relationships as young adults, changing the culture of college campuses across the country. But, equally important, it would also give children the language and skills to get assistance when an interaction is inappropriate right now, whether that interaction is with a friend or a perpetrator.
My university work around prevention has caused me to slow down and become aware of the unspoken assumptions we make about children's bodies, to start connecting the daily conversations I have with my children about body parts and hugs and kisses to the outcomes I wish for the college students whom I educate. As a parent, it occurs to me that there is something better we parents and educators can all do right now. We can begin to think differently about how sexuality, bodies, power, and consent are communicated, starting as early as kindergarten.
There are lots of blurred lines for children around their bodies, when it comes to touching and affection. Think of little Susie, who's asked to give a hug or even a kiss to Aunt Jo, whom Susie hardly knows. Susie's parents mean well, and want to protect Aunt Jo's feelings when she asks for a hug or kiss goodbye. But what is the message to Susie?
It seems that when it comes to their bodies, children are taught that obedience and conformity, not autonomy or even empathy, are the highest values.
I often ask myself: at what point do we "switch over" and teach our children that authority or dominance does not equal a right to another's body? When do we challenge this early lesson in power and consent?
Here are five small tips to begin the conversation about healthy sexuality with your little one.
1. Confidence and respect. I speak the proper names of my children's private body parts often to inspire confidence in their bodies. When they are curiously exploring their bodies or needing to wipe after using the potty are both great times to name things. This also ensures that if they come home calling their private part "cupcake" one day, I'll know that someone else has been having this conversation with them. (For more on sexual abuse and kids, this article is very helpful.)
2. Privacy. Although I always have an audience in the bathroom, I still talk about the need for privacy. "Could mom get some privacy?" It's even easier to name with other adults, like when their Dad or Grammy goes to the bathroom and the crew of littles think they can follow. And, I try to connect this lesson to the first one. Having named their vulva or penis, I often mention that it is for her or him alone to see and touch. (The exception to this rule is mom or dad, and a doctor if mom or dad is present.) And, I also talk to them about not touching others' private parts. They are hard words to get out the first time, but each time gets easier. And then it becomes part of the things our family regularly talks about.
3. Affection and consent. This one is hard, I admit. But I try to intercept any affection to which my child does not genuinely and enthusiastically respond. If another adult requests a hug or kiss, I try to put myself in the way and reframe the moment to encourage my child's ability to choose. "Would you like to give a wave goodbye or a high five? You could also give her a hug or kiss, if you want. What feels comfortable to you?"
4. Empathy. We try to name emotions as often as we can, for ourselves and our kids. "You look frustrated that your lego tower won't stay up." "I see that you are sad that you can't have the toy." In the moment of dealing with ten different things, it may not feel like it matters, but the ability to think emotionally starts small. We also discuss how others seem to be feeling, to help develop empathy. "It looked like Alex was sad at school today. Was there a time today when you felt sad?"
5. Autonomy. We've all been guilty of valuing obedient, even silent, children. Especially on airplanes! But I try to recognize when I'm silencing my kid's voice and curiosity, especially when it's just for the sake of convenience. Time, manner, and place do matter. That is part of the lesson, and when it is time to be still or quiet, I try to take the time to explain those additional factors. But, children--all people--shouldn't have to keep quiet solely for others' comfort or ease; that is one piece of what makes it difficult for survivors to speak out.
These are the smallest of steps, and only the beginning of a much deeper conversation about healthy sexuality and violence. But, from someone who is on the other end of education - doing prevention work with college students - I can say that these basic skills are the foundation for what is needed to shift culture on our campuses. If we can start with our kindergarteners, we can begin to make things better for our college students.
Krista Millay earned her ThD in Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics from Boston University, and is an Assistant Dean of Students for Advocacy, Prevention Education, and Gender Justice at the University of Arizona, where she oversees sexual assault prevention education. She is a Tucson public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.