A while back, my husband and I were at a weekend gathering with food, friends, and a handful of kids running around. My then 5-year-old son — the biggest one at the party — was chasing the other kids while playing Monster. The children ran around the kitchen yelling, "Don't get me, monster!" and their happy and imagination-filled squeals nourished our souls. But then the cute squeals turned into a worry-filled, "Stop! No!" My son had jokingly tackled a 4-year-old girl. While he didn't do any damage and genuinely thought they were all just playing, I knew I needed to act immediately.
Any other time, I would have taken my son aside and given him a quick but stern chat about being more gentle when playing with other kids. But this time, in this moment, I felt the heavy responsibility as a parent to do more. The Time's Up and #MeToo movements have made me much more aware of the importance of teaching both my son and daughter about sexual assault. The courageous women who are using their voices to tell their stories have made me realize that teaching good, decent, and kind behavior starts the second kids are born, not when they're already in high school. It's never too early to build that foundation.
If someone tells him they want to make him feel good because they love him, that should never involve his body. Or anyone else's.
"Jack, stop right now," I told my son. "Do not put your hands on Hailey again." It took him a few times, but he got it. He didn't "get" Hailey again. And later that night when I was tucking him into bed, I knew I had to address the topic of sexual assault specifically — something I had never done with him before. And I'll admit it — I was so hesitant. He's young, innocent, and doesn't know bad in the world beyond scraped knees and not getting a toy he want. I didn't want to take him out of the bubble that I want him to stay in as long as possible, but I also know that that if this cycle is going to break — truly break — then I need to educate my kids about what behavior is OK and what is not.
So, that night while sitting on his cartoon-covered sheets, my extremely nervous self explained to him that some body parts are private. I told him that if he ever feels uncomfortable, sad, or confused in a situation — even with someone he loves and trusts — to ask for help and tell me or his dad immediately. And I told him that he should never make anyone else feel uncomfortable, sad, or angry when it comes to touching them, whether that's while playing Monster when he's five or having his first date at 15. If someone tells him they want to make him feel good because they love him, that should always come in the form of a favorite snack, TV show, or trip to the park — never should it involve his body. Or anyone else's.
To be honest, I'm not sure he understood completely. He nodded and agreed and didn't ask very many questions, but I also know that our conversation on the topic has only just begun. When he's 5, it's about "using your words" and what body parts are private. When he's 15, it'll be about the birds and the bees and the million different things that entails. He has to understand what's right and what's wrong in regards to sexual assault, and it's a puzzle that takes years to build, the first piece starting at an early age.
His Monster game was innocent, but one small change he can make right now is listening to others more carefully — no means no. I'm not sure if I'm handling this whole thing right or not, but I do know that being open with my kids is always the best answer. And the next time he plays Monster, I hope he still lets his imagination run wild, but the second he notices someone is uncomfortable, he'll stop, listen, and fix it.