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Telling my 5-year-old about sexual consent was just as awful as it sounds

Stephanie Land is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change. Her work has been featured in Vox, The New York Times and The Guardian. She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her two daughters.

I didn't want to teach my 5-year-old about saying no to sex, but I had no choice

I got a lot of calls from my daughter Mia's kindergarten teacher. I'd kind of expected this, and it actually came at a bit of a relief. My daughter is one to push limits and test boundaries. Through preschool, it'd seemed like she was a model child at school, and saved her challenging behaviors for me. At home, we butted heads, in a constant battle of wits, so I was thankful it wasn't just me she pegged as a possible if-she-could-just-catch-her-at-the-right-minute pushover-type of person. Then I got a call from the principal.

"We had an incident involving Mia today," he said. I'd just gotten home from my college class, and was in a rush to get to a client's house to clean before I had to meet Mia at the bus stop.

"Okay," I said, hoping it didn't mean a conference or suspension. Did they suspend kindergartners? I hoped not.

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"Two boys were chasing Mia on the playground today," he said. "When they caught Mia, they pinned her down on the ground and told her they wanted to have sex with her."

It's not often that I feel what they call a "Mama Bear rage," but I felt a bit like the Incredible Hulk in that moment. I double-time my parenting as a single mom, and felt the "dad" side of me growing violent thoughts to the boys who'd tackled my little girl.

I thought back to my elementary school days of boys chasing me on the playground. I'd been taught, from the beginning, that if a boy was mean to me, it meant he liked me. That if a boy did a physical act that hurt me, it meant he had a crush. On the flip side, I was also taught to hug and kiss all relatives good-bye from a young age, even when I didn't want to, because otherwise it'd hurt their feelings.

That situation with family should be the beginning of teaching our children about consent, from when they are little babies, not in a principal's office after they've been tackled by a boy.

"Is Mia okay?" I squeaked.

"Oh she's totally fine," he said, hoping he meant physically. "We talked to the boys, and they didn't even know what they meant when they said 'sex.'"

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When I talked to Mia that night, she asked me what the word meant. She thought it was a compliment, being a huge fan of the song Gangnam Style at the time.

"Sex is another word for when a mom and dad make a baby," I said. I watched the wheels turn in her head a little.

"I'm too little, Mom!" she said. My heart ached. She was. Mia had done the right thing in the situation. She'd told them to stop, and when they didn't she told an adult what happened. When we talked about it, she didn't feel like it was a big deal and even said, "They're just boys."

The next time I saw a blond boy in Mia's class run up to her, hugging her even though she told him to stop, I intervened, Mama Bear style. I bent over so I was right next to his face. "You are not allowed to hug her if she doesn't want a hug," I said. "Ask if you can hug her, and if she says 'yes,' then it's okay. Do you understand?" He looked at me, wide-eyed, and ran away. I never found out who the boys were that tackled her.

Consent is not sexually oriented at all when it comes to allowing other people to touch you. It's important to teach children that not only should they ask before touching someone, even if it's holding their hand, they should wait for a "yes." The absence of a "no" does not give consent.

I'd always been so focused on teaching my daughter about her private parts and keeping them to herself, I didn't think that included her whole body. A sexual predator would not start with the most extreme interactions from the get-go. It starts with pats on the back, or hugs or sitting in a lap. A child should never be forced to physically interact with friends or family members if they don't want to, and in turn they should always ask before they touch their friends and family.

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I've started practicing this as an adult. Asking friends if I can hug them gives more credit to the action. There's a moment, a pause and an acceptance, or a welcoming. It gives the action a mutual sincerity, appreciation and affection. Before I'd hugged friends goodbye without thinking, but giving it that moment of consent changes the action.

It's important that my daughter sees these exchanges. It's vital I teach others who interact with her the same. The exchange of asking to touch and saying yes should be as obvious and important as asking to borrow something before taking it. As a parent, I teach to give, to allow, but also that saying no is not only OK; it will be validated.

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