How 3 Cats Are Helping Me Teach My Sons About Consent

by Nicole Melanson
Young boy and a cat looking through a window in black and white with purple and turquoise illustrate...
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My sons begged us to get a pet for years, but my husband and I resisted. The thought of bringing a dog or a cat into our hectic family life was just too daunting—especially for me, a stay-at-home mother to five kids eight and under. I knew the bulk of pet care would fall on my shoulders, and I wasn’t up for the challenge. So, we waited.

Then we decided to move.

And then we moved again.

By the time we’d settled interstate, the boys ranged from five to 14 years old, and taking on a pet seemed a fun way to celebrate starting a new chapter in our lives, one in which all the humans in our household were finally independent enough for me to consider adding furry companions.

We promised the kids two kittens as a sort of housewarming gift. The first one was an easy choice: the only rescue animal available when we visited the RSPCA. But the second had bonded with her cage-mate, so in the end, we wound up adopting three new family members: the affectionate, all-black Twitch, a frisky tabby we named Vienna, and our dusky but distant beauty, Zelda.

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People always talk about how having pets teaches children responsibility. And yes, cleaning litter boxes and topping up food and water bowls does help little ones learn to care for others. What I hadn’t anticipated is how much pet ownership could also teach my sons about negotiating intimacy.

My boys are well past the age where I need to worry about them pulling cats by the tail. They are, however, still in that solipsistic head space of youth, where a persistent sense of entitlement rubs up against an emerging empathy. The boys view their cats as playthings that should be available on demand. The cats don’t share this perspective.

At any given moment, one of my sons will be looking for a kitty to bat a toy around with him, while another will be cuddling a furball to soothe himself. On a good day, kid goals and cat goals align and everybody’s content. Unfortunately, domestic cats are crepuscular and can resent being dragged away from mid-day naps to snuggle or frolic according to someone else’s whim.

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I regularly find myself saying, “Leave her alone / put her down / let her go” in varying degrees of frustration. What I have come to appreciate about these exchanges is that they offer me a golden but fleeting opportunity to discuss personal boundaries with my children. I’m not going to be present during my sons’ romantic encounters, so now is the time to get my boys thinking about the difference between invitation and coercion.

Cats have no qualms about communicating their needs. When they want attention, they’re quick to jump on your lap (or your keyboard). If it’s space they’d prefer, off they dash to a private retreat. As a mother, I’ve always been clear about telling my kids when I’m touched out and need a breather, but pets have no such luxury; they are at the mercy of their owners to not only understand their needs but meet them.

I don’t think it’s too great a leap to say that teaching my boys to treat their pets with sensitivity and respect now lays a healthy foundation for how they’ll treat future partners. And so, I encourage my children to consider not just verbal but social cues like body language and posture.

I show my kids how to recognize when a cat is curling her tail and purring with pleasure vs. when her ears are flattened and she’s arching her back, desperate to escape. On a similar note, if a cat has gone into hiding, my boys know enough to leave her alone until she decides to come out.

We talk about how just because a cat sometimes bunts your hand and sleeps on the foot of your bed doesn’t mean she wants you picking her up every time she walks past or patting her while she’s eating.

We also discuss how different cats have different proclivities. For example, Twitch doesn’t mind a bit of commotion and manhandling, Vienna prefers to play when everyone else is settled, and Zelda can only handle quiet one-on-one interaction. What works best for one cat doesn’t suit the others.

No one in my house has a degree in veterinary science, so I’m sure our interpretation of cat behavior and vocalization occasionally misses the mark. But by and large, my boys share a harmonious life with their feline friends, showing them kindness and compassion.

I hope that when the time comes, my sons will be able to apply what they’ve learned from pets to people, fostering relationships that feel mutually safe and fulfilling.

Until then, I’m just glad they’re big enough to haul those enormous bags of cat food and kitty litter up from the garage by themselves!