Teaching our children about consent and their bodies has never been more urgent. Many of us have watched in horror as the details emerged in the trial of former doctor to the American gymnastics team Larry Nassar, who, under the guise of medical care, abused over 150 young women — some as young as 6 years old. It’s been a sobering parenting lesson in communication with our children, about boundaries and bodies and authority figures.
And yet, there are subtle, everyday ways we undermine the lessons we teach our children about consent — through our own actions and the actions of others, many with whom we are complicit.
This especially hit very close to home during a recent visit to the pediatrician with my 6-and-a-half-year-old. We were at a routine annual checkup with a female doctor. While performing my son’s body exam, she was peppering me with questions about his health, and I admittedly wasn’t carefully watching what she was doing with her tools or her hands. My son was trying to get his own two cents in, as 6-year-olds often do, so I tried to remain focused on what the pediatrician was saying. Suddenly, my son shuddered, his cheeks turned bright red, and he said, “Mooooom, she just touched my PRIVATE PARTS!”
“It’s OK,” the doctor said. “I’m a doctor.” I found myself agreeing with her, maybe to reassure him in the moment, or maybe because I was embarrassed at his outburst. “Yes, she’s a doctor,” I parroted. “So this is her job. She’s making sure all your body parts are healthy, and that includes your genitals.”
The second I said it, I regretted it. She hadn’t alerted him (or me) to her touch, nor had she asked for permission. It wasn’t OK. And, judging by his face and how his body had tensed up, he wasn’t OK.
As soon as we left, I explained that what the doctor had done was wrong and that I was also wrong in agreeing with her. I apologized; and I explained that she should have alerted us about her touch; that she should have asked for permission before touching; and that since it didn’t happen, I should have spoken up.
While the mind of a 6-year-old boy is often quick to move on, this experience clearly stayed with him. On the way home, he talked about it with me. At his play date, he talked about it with his friend. And at breakfast the next morning, unprompted, he talked it about it with my husband.
What happened at the doctor’s office goes against everything we try hard to teach our two boys about consent: “Your body belongs to you, and no one can touch it without your permission.” And yet, I allowed it to happen right in front of me, and worse – I was complicit in it by agreeing with the doctor while we were still in the exam room. I can’t help but think about some of the survivor testimonies in the Nassar case, in which the mothers were in the exam room with their daughters, naïve to and unaware of the abuse as it was happening.
Of course, what happened to my son is a very, very far cry from what these women experienced at the hands of this sick criminal, but in a way, I identify with the mothers. Like them, I trust the people who are supposed to take care of my children to do their jobs in the most professional and respectful way.
Since then, I’ve been thinking about the mixed messages I have been sending my children, and it turns out, I haven’t been so great at modeling consent with my kids. While I do tell them that no one can touch their bodies without their permission, I’ve also said, “no one, except me, Dad, your babysitters, and the doctor.” After all, there are baths to be had, tushies to be wiped and, of course, health exams to be done. But I now realize that I should have included one very important distinction: even among that elite group of people who are allowed to touch their bodies, there is still the prerequisite of, “only if you say it is OK first.”
It may seem extreme to some parents, but I am no longer taking my children’s voices for granted when it comes to their bodies and their ownership of them. I want my sons to know that their bodies are their own and that they get a say in what is done to them, whether the person doing them is a doctor, a dentist, a babysitter, or even me.
Now does this mean that I will be asking my three-year-old his permission to wash his hair at bath time? No. But I will tell him what is about to happen, so that he understands that prior to someone touching him, there can and should be a conversation. And if he says no, I’ll give him the soap, and let him have a try at it!
In the future, I will not ignore my child’s questions at his own doctor’s appointments, and I will be wary of the doctor that doesn’t read a child’s cues when they seem fearful and instead continues to examine their body. I will choose my child’s comfort and my own over the desire to finish an appointment. I will ask the questions my kids don’t have the ability to ask yet, because I am their advocate, and that is my job. At the next checkup, I will say, “Can you walk us through what you’re going to be doing today?” because being in a doctor’s office is scary for a lot of people, especially for children.
Cases in the news like that of Dr. Nassar remind parents the scary truth that abuse of trust can come from even the most respected of people in our children’s lives. We must be consistent in our messages to our kids about what is and what is not OK with respect to their bodies so they know when to speak up – as my son did in that moment on the exam table. And we must listen when they do.
Photo from Alexis’ Instagram account.