On October 6, a boy at school hit Merritt Smith's 4-year-old daughter in the face, sending the girl to the hospital for stitches. Bad enough. Then, a hospital employee told the 4-year-old, "I bet he likes you." Smith took to Facebook to send an open message to the employee. "That statement is where the idea that 'hurting is flirting' begins to set a tone for what is acceptable behavior," she writes. "You thought you were making the moment lighter. It is time to take responsibility for the messages we as a society give our children."
The post resonated: It's been shared over 20,000 times. "I recall being told the same thing as a kid, and it never made a damn bit of sense," one commenter shared. "Love and bruises do not belong together," wrote another.
Before you write off the incident as a scuffle between children (though that cut is deep) followed by a chirpy comment from a well-meaning adult, raise your hand if you've ever been told that a boy was teasing you to flirt with you — that he chased you at recess or pulled your hair or called you a name to show his affection. The boys in these scenarios hear these messages, too. Instead of learning how to treat girls with respect, they begin to absorb the belief that "boys will be boys" — that they are are not responsible for their own behaviors, but rather, that girls somehow are responsible when they "make" boys like them or turn boys down or otherwise provoke them.
When that narrative grows up, it looks more insidious and becomes sexual entitlement, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. No matter what age parents and educators decide to introduce children to the concept of sex, the concepts of consent and bodily autonomy can't be taught too early. (Not hitting other kids is, of course, a good start.)