By Rachel Gall, Ph.D., LP, LMFT
Denver JDS Psychologist
One of my favorite parts of parenting my 2 year old is cuddling — every day I can't wait to wrap my arms around her, squeeze her tight, and smother her with kisses. The problem is, this scenario only happens in my head. She isn't a cuddler and will wriggle out of my lap, saying, "No kisses, Mommy!" And that leaves me disappointed, sometimes achingly so, because I want to squeeze her so badly. But that's exactly the problem — those cuddles are about what I want, not what she wants. So I remind myself that she gets to define her own boundaries, that it is her body, and that I should ask permission before I give her a hug or a kiss.
At Denver JDS, we continue teaching about personal space throughout elementary school. Children learn to ask before playing with someone's sequin flippy-shirt or touching their hair. We set the foundation early, so that as our students grow older, conversations about consent and sexual assault are a natural continuation of these topics. And it quickly becomes much more complex.
Over the past two weeks, The Blue Bench, Denver's go-to resource for comprehensive sexual violence prevention, education, and treatment, has presented a middle school, high school, and parent education program for our Denver JDS community. Their research-based program teaches teens how to identify and define a range of behaviors that are considered sexual harassment, from catcalling, to homophobic jokes, to sexting, to rape. They posed questions to our students such as what behaviors are condoned in our community? Are some behaviors that make others uncomfortable explained away? What does consent look like in real life? What does it mean to be a bystander?
The power of bystanders is the most powerful tool we have in our society to stand up against sexual violence. The overwhelming majority of offenders of sexual assault are someone the victim knows — a friend, family member, neighbor, or other adult in a position of authority. When offenders experience the message that these behaviors are not condoned in their communities, and that their behaviors will be seen and addressed, they are less likely to offend and children will feel more comfortable to report.
As parents, it’s important to be able to navigate this complicated topic in age-appropriate ways. With help from organizations like The Blue Bench, we can do our part to recognize risky situations and teach children about boundaries and consent.
For more information, contact The Blue Bench at https://thebluebench.org/.