You can ask my four year-old daughter, Emily*, what goes wrong at the end of the movie Sleeping Beauty. She will tell you emphatically, "Prince Phillip didn't ask for permission!" She is referring, of course, to the climax of the movie where the valiant prince rescues Princess Aurora from her eternity of sleep with a kiss. Although I promised at one point to never expose my children to these outdated and misogynist fairy tales, I found out early on in parenthood that it was a futile goal. And I realize now that the important thing about consuming these stories is the conversation you have about them, not shielding children from them all together.
We endured fairytale after fairytale with endless conversations afterwards. Then Frozen came along. Suddenly, I happily found myself talking about what was right with a movie for a change. Although most parents are sick of Queen Elsa and letting it go, it should continue to be celebrated for the progress it shows. "Kristoff asks Anna for permission!" Emily says with each viewing. The highest grossing animated movie of all time does something that other areas of pop culture find hard to do: it shows true consent.
While consent may seem like a heady concept for the under-five population to grasp, the truth is that's exactly when we need to begin these conversations. I was elated when my daughter and I viewed a Doc McStuffins episode called 'Commander No'. In the show, a tickling game gets out of hand and some of the toys don't respect the word no. What is amazing about this episode is the way the behavior is framed as a game, and the way most of the toys stand around without stopping it because they don't think anything is wrong. This is bystander intervention for preschoolers! When the commander says, "I don't like being tickled, it doesn't feel good to me." Doc goes on to sing a song with lyrics like "Stop. No. That's enough. These are the words to listen to."
Having recognizable and beloved characters play a part in these lessons is an important springboard for parents. The Doc McStuffins episode goes beyond teaching children to listen to "No." It introduces the concepts of empathy and perspective-taking, which have become building blocks in sexual violence prevention.
The more examples like this that we have exposure to, the more commonplace these conversations can be between children and parents. And while Doc McStuffins isn't the first show to tackle issues like this, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics today's children spend an average of seven hours a day on entertainment media. I want that media exposure to be composed of the right content. I want the shows aimed at preschoolers to be about respecting boundaries, checking in with your friends, and saying something when you know things aren't right, in addition to all of the wonderful things preschoolers needs to learn.
Imagine what could happen if we had a generation of children who were raised on this media. There would be less confusion about seeking consent because they'd see plenty of examples. There wouldn't be as many questions about intervening in problematic situations because they've observed their role models stepping up to help others. And we would have instilled in them a genuine sense of empathy and concern for others, from the time they're learning how to speak. Wouldn't that be nice?
*Names have been changed to protect privacy
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