Here’s something new.
Someone sent me a note seeking advice. I tried to provide a thoughtful perspective with really tangible ideas for how to move forward. I was told it was helpful so asked if I could post it so others could perhaps benefit. I’m happy to receive other emails from parents wondering how to tackle a particular sex and sexuality challenge relating to their kid. If you do contact me, let me know if I can publish it. I’ll always change names and other details to maintain privacy. I’m going to use the naming convention that is used for hurricanes since dealing with kids can sometimes feel like a big storm. Alex is the first fabulous storm that I get to blog about.
My son Alex is a terrific kid. Vivacious and dynamic with energy to power the world! He’s 6 years old and in Grade 1 where he is testing his boundaries in some areas as he tries to figure it all out.
For some reason, he has got a thing for kissing (or threatening to kiss) grade 3 girls. There is no doubt that Alex imagines himself a “cool dude” who should be hanging with the older kids and he has indicated that he is trying to “get their attention” and “just wants to play with them” when asked why he insists on the kissing thing. He has been talked to (as have I) by his teacher on a number of occasions and also by his principal (who clearly does not like it when this happens). We have reviewed the reasons this behaviour is not appropriate at school and have tried to make him understand the reasons why the girls don’t like what he is doing.
I need some help figuring out my messaging to him. Part of me remembers my days at school when kissing tag seemed to be a usual practice so I find myself struggling a little bit to feel as strongly as his teachers/principals do about the seriousness of his offenses. Isn’t it somewhat normal for him to be acting in this way at the age of 6? It’s not that I want him to continue the behaviour – I don’t because clearly the girls don’t like it and I realize that it is an opportunity for learning the important lesson that all physical contact between people needs to be not just consensual but enthusiastically consensual. Where I am struggling is how to make the learning effective for a 6 year old boy with some attention issues. How do I speak to him about this and what language do I use to make him understand that a girl who says no means no and that it is critical that he respect her and her body.
We review the points together and he can repeat them back to me but is it really sinking in?
I appreciate what you are saying about the fun of chasing and kissing. It can be hard to see it as anything other than playful. Alex is acting ‘normally’ and you are too when you teach him about boundaries and acceptable behaviour.
Here are a couple suggestions that might help. If you’ve tried them, keep trying since most people need multiple lessons to integrate a new peice of learning.
- If Alex is a cool guy, maybe play up what ‘cool’ looks like (ie. doing things people like, asking, being sure people are happy and feel respected). Also maybe brainstorm with him ways that he can impress this crowd or another group. Maybe he needs some help coming up with a game plan for accomplishing his interest to be a part of this gang. Magic tricks? Dance moves, soccer goals, feats of mathematical genius? Help him stockpile alternate and acceptable ways to get their attention.
- While Alex may be too young to understand the word ‘consent’, he isn’t too young to understand its meaning. Remind him that his body belongs to him and no one is allowed to touch it without his permission and that the same is true for others. We aren’t born knowing that – we all need to learn to respect our own and other peoples bodies. You can also talk about ‘feelings of consent’ or ‘the feeling inside that helps a person know that they are good with what’s happening’. It’s a great idea to encourage our children to pay attention to their intuition, or gut feelings, since it will serve them well in many (sexual) cirumstances throughout their lives.
- Explain to Alex that it’s not always easy to tell if something is ok or not ok for others (ie. the girls might be laughing as he chases them) and that you and the teachers are there to help him navigate stuff when things aren’t clearcut. Reinforce that you trust him to be the kind of person who learns as he goes.
- Maybe an analogy to hitting can help since it too is uninvited touch. Even if kids aren’t hurt, hitting isn’t cool. Even if girls aren’t hurt or expressing feeling hurt (crying or yelling), chasing and kissing them without permission isn’t cool. And sometimes our action don’t hurt people physically but hurt them emotionally. A person’s feelings can be hurt from a hit or a kiss. Just because a person doesn’t say anything, we can’t be sure they’re ok with what’s going on. Which is why talking and listening is so important.
- Let Alex know that if this behavior continues, the school isn’t going to let him be there. The principal and teachers have a responsibility to make sure all the kids are feeling safe and being treated well. If Alex is repeatedly doing stuff that disregards those ‘rules’, the principal may suspend him.
- Tell Alex you know that kissing is awesome but that it’s only awesome when both people are interested. Explain that it’s the same for you kissing him. Or his grandma kissing him, or you kissing your spouse. It’s critical that both people want to do it. When it comes to non-familial kissing, it’s fair to communicate to Alex that kissing is an activity for older people.
He’ll get it. Eventually. Continue to look for opportunities to reinforce the concept of consent and at some point, if you haven’t yet, introduce the language of ‘consent’ so that it is a word that he associates with the ideas. As all of our kids get older, it won’t just be about kissing. Talking about consent around other sexual activities will be critical.
Sharing the incredible power and value of communicating is something that we really can’t overstate with our kids. But telling them isn’t all that we can do. We can provide them with opportunities to practice communicating about consent. Together you can brainstorm different ways people communicate ‘no’ messages. With words, body language, facial expressions, and actions. You can play ‘How would you respond?’ or ‘What could you say if…?’ and lob situations at your kid for brainstorming together. Small lessons in empathy, risk taking, sharing, and speaking our truth accumulate so that our children have the skills to share their feelings and wishes – and hear the feelings and wishes of others - when it counts most.