“Dude, how did you get these? You’re SO lucky.”
I was at the playground with my preschooler when I heard this from a nearby group of middle school boys. They were hard to ignore as they passed around a cellphone filled with images of young girls — their classmates — in various stages of undress. I judged the boys to be 13, at the oldest.
The girls had snapped these selfies in bras or towels, posing alone in steamed-up bathrooms or frilly childhood bedrooms. From the boys’ chatter, I discerned that the “lucky dude” hadn’t requested the photos: The girls had taken them quite willingly. But he hadn’t rejected the photos, either, and he didn’t mind sharing them with others. I couldn’t see the images, but I didn’t need to. The boys were impressed enough to describe each one in detail.
Looking back, I wish I’d spoken up for those girls in the pictures but I was too shocked and sad. Watching my my rosy-cheeked preschooler on the swing, I was flooded by the realization that one day soon he’d be the same age as these boys. Even sooner, I’d need to discuss these issues with my 8- and 11-year-old daughters. The simplicity of swing sets and slides fades fast. What comes next isn’t nearly as simple.
It’s about consent
I’ve been preparing for it, sort of. In the local group of 70ish parents that I’ve co-led for nearly a decade, we weave the concept of consent — the idea that interacting with another human should involve mutual, enthusiastic agreement — into every playdate by using phrases like “She’s not enjoying that, so you need to stop” or “Please ask before you give your friend a hug.” We’re used to asking, not assuming, before we tickle, hoist or squeeze our adorably squeezable kids.
And we’re not the only ones teaching our young kids about consent. I see similar parenting behavior nearly everywhere I go. Like many others, we believe that kids have ownership of their own bodies. Of course, we’ll step in when safety is at stake and our kids get that parents and health care providers help them keep their bodies clean, safe and healthy, but, for the most part, we let our kids decide when and how to engage in physical contact.
But as my playground encounter made clear, teaching consent isn't just about physical contact. It’s digital, too. Our phones are filled with snapshots of our unwitting kids and we think nothing of posting these photos online.
But maybe we should. As parents, we patiently teach our toddlers that they have ownership of their own bodies and then turn around and post a photo of them on Instagram before our kid even realizes we took one.
Why this matters
Soon enough, those precious preschoolers turn into precocious preteens who snap sexualized images and share them without a second thought. They want attention, and they get it, but they don’t realize that the steamy photo won’t just been seen by that lucky dude they’re trying to impress — it’ll be passed around the playground, the school and maybe even further. By throwing consent by the wayside, they’ve lost precious ownership over an image of their body. I wonder if they know they had that ownership in the first place.
It all come back to the same lesson: Our bodies don’t exist for others’ enjoyment.
Is there a direct line between posting a photo of your toddler and that same kid someday sharing a sexy photo? Of course not, but it does all come back to the same lesson: Our bodies don’t exist for others’ enjoyment.
I want to teach that lesson early and often. While I sometimes fall short, I check in before posting a photo with a quick “Hey, do you like this photo of yourself? Care if I post it online?” Doing so gets kids thinking about the impact of sharing a photo or video online. It also reinforces the fact that shared images should make them feel good about themselves, whether those images are seen by their friends, their grandma or their principal.
This also applies to photos that our kids find unflattering or embarrassing but that we may find hilarious. It’s tough to teach kids that they shouldn’t send or view potentially degrading images when we’re posting photos that make our own kids cringe.
I hope my children understand that consent encompasses not only live physical contact, but photos and videos too because these types of digital exchanges are vital parts of our lives.
And I hope that someday, when they’re handed a phone with an image of a classmate meant for someone else’s eyes, they’ll remember all our talks about consent and pass the phone right back.