There are few more thankless jobs in America than being a parent and a teacher. In elementary schools, they're even sort of similar: Little-to-no personal space, unexpected volcanic tantrums and plenty of runny noses.
Then there are the sex scandals.
Yes, in elementary schools.
I once taught in a grade school where I witnessed boys and girls physically fighting each other over who had possession of a boyfriend or girlfriend. Students held open discussions of sex and lashed out at foes with such sexually bullying behavior as homophobic put-downs and explicit rumors about their classmates. Though alarming, these sorts of behaviors shouldn't come as a surprise in a society that uses sex to sell everything from shampoo to internet domain registry services. Children are sexualized -- and entering puberty -- at younger and younger ages.
Dr. Andre Perry, an education fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote a column recently in The Hechinger Report calling for schools to teach girls and boys that "no" means "no."
"Respecting personal space is a message that hasn't been heard loud enough thus far," Perry wrote.
As a teacher, I've spent years in a wide range of elementary and high schools -- urban and suburban, upper-middle-class and very low-income, majority white and majority-minority. The administration and teachers at all of these schools prioritized "teaching basic notions of consent and respect for the word 'no,'" as Perry called it -- albeit to varying effect.
Still, some kids come from cultures where hugging and being physically close is normal school behavior. Others act out and may experiment by trying behaviors they see on TV, in movies, on YouTube and in social media feeds they're exposed to by older friends and family.
Perry acknowledged that "schools are not responsible for all of individuals' social behaviors." This made me stop and consider my role as a parent in teaching the basic tenets of consent.
It was uncomfortable for me to realize how many mixed messages all of us send our children when trying to balance their boundaries with family expectations.
Surveying parenting advice on how to teach children about affirmative consent, I shuddered.
When my sons were younger, I definitely uttered the phrase "boys will be boys." It was always in reference to them trying to annoy each other to death or getting into ridiculous wrestling matches at the dinner table. But it's best eradicated from our language since it is so often used to justify bad behavior that can be controlled, but isn't, because it's perceived as likely to get a pass.
Also toxic is the fight-related phrase, "What did you do to make him hit you?" It implies that an aggressor is sometimes entitled to lose control. Let's all stop saying that in favor of, "Tell me everything that happened and start from the beginning."
Then there were all the times I made my kids hug and kiss distant relatives or friends of the family whom they barely knew, because it was expected. So many of us were raised that way that we've never stopped to think about the message it sends.
"Often, we force kids to give hugs to relatives, receive a pat on the back from a coach, or give a kiss on the cheek to a family friend because it seems harmless," wrote Michelle Dominique Burk on the website EverydayFeminism.com. "In the event that a kid says, 'I don't want to,' they are often met with disapproval -- and then are forced to do it anyway."
Burk continued: "Not only does forcing a child to do these things tell the child that 'no' is not an acceptable answer, but the implication is that their refusal is not respected or validated. ... The conversation about the importance of 'no' should not be one where kids are told, 'Don't ever let a stranger touch you if you don't want them to.' It should be one where kids are told, 'You don't have to let anyone touch you if you don't want them to.'"
The #MeToo movement is absolving no one of the responsibility to make sure they aren't violating others' personal boundaries and space. This is as it should be. Now the movement must evolve into holding ourselves accountable for teaching the next generation that we all need permission to get physical, and that "no" always really means "no."
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. She was previously a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. Esther Cepeda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.