One of my favorite sounds is the laughter of my children. When they’re tickling each other, when they’re chasing each other, when they’re wrestling with each other. The infectious belly laughs and squeals warm my heart. One child tickles, the other screams and laughs. The tickler laughs too. The tickle-ee screams “Stop!” and keeps laughing, and tickles back. And this continues, over and over, until the tickle-ee screams, “I SAID STOP!”
I said Stop. But she was laughing, and tickling back. She was playing along. Until she wasn’t.
I see kids, not just mine, play out this scenario every day. When boys are wrestling. When kids are teasing. When kids are pestering each other, following each other around on the blacktop, in the cafeteria, in the backyard, playing one more video game. It starts out with a mutual agreement to have fun. Then one party starts to tire of it, and verbalizes a “No,” or “Stop it,” or “Please go away,” or “Not now.” But these seem like feeble attempts, because the tired party continues to engage in some fashion, or doesn’t scream it loudly the first time, or doesn’t disengage and flee.
I see adults cajole kids in this similar fashion as well. By “adults,” I mean me, and you. Granted, a lot of this is used to reframe or negotiate an issue to get a child to finish homework, or eat their vegetables, or take medicine. But adults do it too. To kids, to each other. “Oh come on, stay out a little longer. One more drink.” or “Oh come on, cut out of work early to play some golf.”
It’s usually harmless, and we all do it to some degree. There’s a fine line between persuasion and pesky. A fine line between negotiation and coercion. Kids don’t naturally know where this fine line is. To them, positive reinforcements can be seen as bribing. To them, a parent pressuring a child to finish his vegetables can be generalized to it being OK to pressure other people into doing things. And so it becomes even that much more important that we step in and discuss these interactions in real time.
Now, more than ever, we are outraged at our current rape culture, this understanding of the world that permits the entitled taking of something not yours to take; this disregard for boundaries; this inability to understand where I stop and you begin. This is a good thing, this outrage. Outrage will only take you so far though. We need to teach our children how to negotiate this world, and with each other. We need to teach our children that this rape culture starts years before one is sexually active.
Girls and women are taught at an early age how to try to prevent rape and sexual assault: we shouldn’t wear short skirts or cleavage-baring tops, we shouldn’t get too drunk, we shouldn’t walk alone at night. You know, because otherwise, you’re just being stupid and not being safe.
What are we telling our boys and men? Now, more than ever, we’re telling them to respect women as humans. Yes, we need to do that. We also need to start teaching our little babies that no matter what, No means No, and Stop means Stop. Even when they’re five- or seven-years-old, and it’s a raucous pillow fight or tickle session or wrestling match or freeze tag. Adults too often ignore these innocent squirmishes because they’re having fun. Their squeals and protests are background noise. It’s innocent play. Adults don’t intervene until someone gets hurt in that pillow fight.
It’s innocent, until it’s not. We need to teach boys and girls early on that no matter what the circumstance, no matter how the game started out, the second someone says No or Stop, it’s Hands up, Walk away. No cajoling, no negotiating, no pressuring. It doesn’t matter if he or she is still laughing and engaging. We need our children to understand this concept in all forms.
We need to teach our children to respect everyone’s boundaries in all aspects of our lives. Sure, we tell kids that, we tell people to respect each other. But those directives are so abstract, they don’t know what it looks like, what it feels like, how to do it. We need to teach them what it feels like to be disappointed when her playmate no longer wants to play that game, and that’s OK. We need to teach them what it feels like to have his boundaries respected, so that he knows what it feels like when someone’s not respecting his boundaries. We need to teach them to honor and respect others, to be honored. We teach these concepts through the games and interactions they know now, not just by talking at them.
We have a rule in our house: I better not hear “No” or “Stop” more than once. But do I? Of course, they’re children, and human. We all need opportunities to practice. And we do, every day. Because she said Stop. And we need to honor that.