The other day my wife wasn't feeling well so she stayed home from work. Our son noticed this, of course, and asked me about it. I told him that momma would be home when he got home from school, but that she wasn't feeling well.
"I have to be gentle with her," he said. "I'll get all of my energy out at school so I only have slow energy when I come home."
"Yes, always gentle with momma," I said.
My son and I have established some boundaries with regards to rough housing. He's four, after all, so he's still figuring out the physicality of life. He wants to wrestle. He wants to run and jump and throw and hit. My wife is not a fan of this, but I love it. A big part of my relationship with my son involves physical interaction.
"I have to be gentle with momma," he said, "but I can be rough with dadda - because we're boys, right daddy? Boys are rough."
It's not often than you are aware of moments like this when they happen, but I knew this was important.
I would imagine that if I had said what my son did when I was his age, the answer I would have gotten would have been "yes."
I told my wife about it after the fact.
"Did you tell him that girls can be rough, too?" she said.
That's a totally legitimate response and would have been a good answer.
That's not what I opened with, though.
"You shouldn't be rough with anyone unless they tell you it's okay."
That's how I started.
"Daddy tells you it's okay and mommy says it's not. Boys and girls can both be rough, but only if they tell you they are okay with it."
I decided to address consent first, which I suppose is the kind of thing that a guy would do. Maybe I should have started with sexism, but I felt like saying "girls can be rough, too" was letting a genie out of a bottle that I couldn't pull back.
It would be like saying "you can burn lots of different things, but don't do it!" I think it was important to establish that being rough with anyone without their consent was bad and then to point out that girls can be just as rough as boys.
Did I address the issue correctly? I have no idea. Will this one conversation with my four year old determine whether or not he respects boundaries as he grows up? Probably not. But it was good to lay the groundwork.
More importantly, it was good to introduce the subject, more so for me than for him, because it's not going to go away.
Honestly, I've spent enough time around little kids to know that boys being rough is the rule, not the exception, while girls being rough is the exception, not the rule. But the goal is to consider everyone, not just rules and not just exceptions.
It was my first swing and I think I made decent contact. At the very least, it's a start.