Hugs are great, but only if you both want to

Last week at kindergym, Bean ran up to a little girl he’d never met before and gave her a spontaneous hug. I made my way over from across the room, and when I’d arrived they were still hugging. Or, I should say, Bean was still hugging. The girl was standing there, arms at her sides. She wasn’t pushing him away, but she wasn’t reciprocating either. As quickly as he’d decided to do it, Bean suddenly shouted “Bye!” and raced off to play with something on the other side of the room. When I finally caught up to him, I asked:

“I saw you giving that little girl a hug. Did you ask her if she wanted a hug?”

“Nope.”

“Did she say anything to you?”

“Nope.”

“Okay. Hugs are really nice, but you need to make sure that the person you’re hugging wants to be hugged.”

“Okay.”

In that moment, I was thinking of Bean the toddler, the energetic, natural leader (positive-speak for bossy-pants) who tends to steam-roll his less assertive playmates. I wanted him to learn to listen to other kids and respect their wishes. But later that day while my tired-out Bean was napping, I began to think about him not as a toddler, but as a middle-schooler, a teenager, a man. Hugs are great, but only if the other person wants to hug too. Kissing is great, but only if you’re both into it. Sex is great, but only if you both really, truly want to.

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My husband and I chose not to find out the sex of either of our babies before they were born – at least, not on purpose. With Bean, due to an obvious penis image during our 20-week ultrasound along with a not-so-tactful ultrasound technician, we were 99% sure we were having a boy. With Monkey, I had no clue until my last trimester of pregnancy when Bean started declaring to all who would listen that he was going to have a baby sister and she would be named Owl. Though it was silly, I started to believe that he was tapping into some kind of toddler power of prophecy (about the sister, not about naming her Owl) and that I would have a girl.

But on April fool’s day, I gave birth to a hefty little boy. I’ll admit that I had a few moments of mourning – that our family symmetry would never be perfect; that I would always be outnumbered; that there would be no french braids or party dresses or girl talk. But after that brief sadness for what was not to be, underneath the joy of finally meeting my healthy baby boy, I felt something else: relief. Because in some ways the prospect of having a little girl terrified me.

I am a mother of two boys, and sometimes it feels as though that is a privileged position.

A woman from my city recently made waves with a blog post gone viral about the sexualization of Halloween costumes for little girls. She succeeded in having some offensive costumes pulled off the shelves at a large North American retailer. We’ve all seen the type: the boys’ police officer costume is a miniature version of the real thing, while the girls’ costume is a skimpy, short-skirted get-up that looks nothing like the uniform of a real police officer (a stripper, maybe). If there’s no difference in real-life uniforms for male and female police officers, why the difference in costumes for children? These costumes carry the message that a while it’s appropriate for a little boy to aspire to be a cop when he grows up, a little girl should only aspire to be a sexy woman who can dress up like a sexy cop.

I can’t read the news without seeing stories about girls being victimized by their peers. Three cases that come to mind immediately are SteubenvilleRehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd. Girls who are raped and then victimized again and again when pictures, video and rumours are shared and spread online (by boys and other girls).

So how is the difference in the ways we treat boy and girl children related to healthy relationships and the concept of consent when those children get a little older? I’m not sure exactly, but I know both are pieces of the same messed-up puzzle. There’s no direct line between skimpy Halloween costumes for toddlers and date rape in teenagers. But when kids are continuously exposed to the unspoken message that their worth is not equal, that a boy can have a purpose but a girl is an object to be looked at, how does that not breed attitudes and situations in which boys are privileged and powerful and girls are taken advantage of?

I still worry that my boys will be hurt or bullied – what parent doesn’t? But I have to face up to the fact that as boys, it may be more likely they will participate in victimizing someone else. So here are the tough questions: as hard as it is for a mother to even consider, what if one day one of my boys doesn’t want to hear “no?” Thinks so little of a girl that it doesn’t matter what she wants? What if my boys are the ones who stand idly by at a party while they know something bad is happening in the next room? If a friend texts them a picture of a girl in their class against her will and they laugh and send it on? What if they forget that the person in that picture is a person?

So how do you teach your toddlers to respect other kids; your boys to respect girls; to stand up to bullies; to go against the crowd when it’s the right thing to do? How do you make sure they know that the absence of “no” isn’t the same as “yes?” That they grow up into men who can love and respect women as equals? How do you teach them the concept and importance of consent?

I’m not sure, but I’m starting here: Hugs are great, but only if you both want to.