Recently I’ve been overwhelmed by the spate of sexual assault and rape cases that have hinged on a consent conundrum. At the heart of these cases are young men and women who are confused by what they can and can’t do/have done to their bodies.
For a while I couldn’t understand how consent was ever a debatable topic. How could there be confusion over assault? And then I had the misfortune of overhearing an exchange between 12 year olds in a school where I worked.
The Start of Confusion
In this exchange a girl finished reading a sentence to the class which has the phrase “good for” in it. A boy immediately chimed in with “That’s not all she’s good for!” The boys in the class erupted into raucous cheers and whoops, the girl shrank into her shoulders, let her hair fall over her face and turned a deep shade of violet.
I was horrified. And furious.
Here was a group of children talking about using another person’s body for their own gains regardless of that person’s consent or desires. A group of boys openly discussing taking control of a girl’s body, of reducing her personhood to a sexual function. The worst part? NOBODY reacted! Nobody (with the exception of the girl) within that group thought the comment was inappropriate or offensive. The boys thought it was funny and the girls thought it was unremarkable.
In another school a 13 year old boys asked “If a girl is really drunk and mumbles something you think is yes, is that consent?” Lots of other boys wanted to know the answer, and so did lots of girls.
What kind of society produces children like this? One problem is a lack of discussion around consent, boundaries and impulse control. While I think both schools were massively responsible for creating such sexually toxic environment for young men and women, prior to entering school these kids had spent a lifetime trying to work out what boundaries were. This problem starts with parents. (Read more about Offering Choice to Toddlers).
What is Consent?
Discussing consent doesn’t have to contain a sexual element while your child is very young. When it comes to consent we are aiming to communicate two things;
- That they are important and have control over their body, that they are in charge of who and how they are touched and that they should listen to and communicate their own emotions and needs.
- That the boundaries of other people need to be respected, to listen to the emotions and opinions of others without feeling that their own are more important.
These discussions should start from birth, so that understanding consent becomes an unconscious and innate part of our children’s lives.
1. Ask For Their Consent
Before hugging your child goodbye, picking them up, wiping their nose check in with them. You can say “Is it ok to give you a hug?” “Can I take your hand?” “May I wipe your mouth?”
I often see care givers swoop in to cuddle a crying child. Cuddles are important but stopping to ask “Do you want a hug?” takes less than one second and it’s surprising how often a child will say no.
Some areas are less flexible, personal hygiene being one. In these instances it is important to emphasise who are safe people to help a child with these tasks – parents, doctors, caregivers, and that these occasions are never secret.
2. Take Their Decision Seriously
If your child says no then listen. If they don’t want a kiss don’t force them, if they want to sit on your knee but not be hugged accept their boundaries, if they’d rather not snuggle up during story time let them find their own personal space. Respect their no, whether it’s expressed verbally or through body language. Crucially let them know you’ve heard them and are not offended, “Ok, that’s fine, I’m here if you change your mind.”
It’s also important to advocate for them. Since becoming a mother I’ve been surprised by how many people think it’s ok to impose a hug or a kiss on a child. You can step in and say “Do you want to hug Aunt Thelma?” “Is it ok if Granny Annie gives you a kiss?” this is usually enough to give the adult pause for consideration and to slow down the physical interaction while returning control to your child. On occasion I’ve put my hand in front of Alfie’s mouth if the kisser is moving especially fast! Sure it’s uncomfortable, but so is forcing someone to kiss you…especially if they happen to be an adult!
3. Let them withdraw consent
Allow children to change their mind about what they’re doing or to impose new limits. If, for example, your child says “stop” during a tickle fight then stop, even if it’s said in jest you need to demonstrate that permission is ALWAYS needed for an interaction.
It’s also a good way for children to learn to keep a check on their own feelings without getting carried away in the moment. This will become important later as they learn to share toys and even later as teenagers when boundaries, consent and peer pressure can start to overwhelm them.
4. Try to Understand
Sometimes children do or say things that we know they don’t mean. Even if you think you know what’s going on don’t insist you’re right. By trying to understand your child and letting them tell you in their own words you’re showing them that they are important, that their opinion matters and that you will always listen to their voice. You’re building a foundation of trust and confidence which will support them when they need it.
It will also acts as an example of how they should treat others, of how to listen and how to hear what others try to tell them. The way you communicate will be a role model for their respectful and empathetic relationships.
5. Set your own boundaries
Encourage your child to seek permission from others because it is as important to seek consent as it is to give it. Children need to exercise impulse control, they can’t hit another child, take a toy or do anything else to put their needs above the acceptable and equal needs of another person.
Model requesting and receiving consent in your own relationships and crucially set physical boundaries with your child. I often observe parents who allow their children to do things which they find physically uncomfortable or socially rude; getting attention by forcing eye contact, snatching their food, lashing out if things don’t go their way, clambering all over them in boredom.
We expect children to do these things sure, but we must also empower them to respect that a parent is a person too. That matters because it teaches them that just because you love each other it doesn’t mean one person’s needs are most important and must be met at all times. It’s ok to be momentarily busy!
As our children get older and their understanding of consent will evolve to adapt to the new situations they find themselves in. That evolution can only happen if you’ve build a solid base for them.
As a toddler consent is important for sharing toys, as a child consent matters in role play, as a teenager it matters in dozens of tiny but character defining encounters every day. Consent does not start with the adult version, it starts with age appropriate areas of respect, equality and collaboration.
Learning to navigate consent will keep your child safe whatever side of the question they are on.