I think we’ve all been there: the big family gathering filled with aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins that you haven’t seen in ages, everyone laughing and catching up, the sounds of kids shrieking with playful laughter competing with the happy sound of adults catching up after far too long apart.
If your family is anything like mine, these events are littered with hugs, kisses, and kids roughhousing with each other all over the place.
It’s very happy chaos.
As an adult, I always look forward to the opportunity to connect with my relatives, see how all of the little ones have grown and changed, and relax around my support network.
However, as a child… I often dreaded these types of events.
There was always one Uncle who insisted on giving me a kiss, even if I tried to wiggle away from his scratchy beard, an Aunt who hugged me a little too long and too tightly for comfort, or a cousin who played a little too rough, even when I didn’t want him to.
And my parents always kept encouraging me to go give another hug or kiss to a relative I didn’t remember or particularly want to be physically close to.
What I learned when my parents made me tolerate unwanted hugs and kisses and told me that Cousin Johnny was being rough “because that’s what boys do” and I had to ”learn to deal with it”, and what I later struggled with as an adult, was that my “No”, my lack of consent, didn’t matter.
My parents unintentionally taught me to internalize the belief that what I wanted or didn’t want to happen to my body was not as important as the wants of those around me.
Don’t get me wrong, I have incredible, loving, and supportive parents. They did their absolute best. However, knowing what I know now, one of the biggest mistakes I feel a parent can make is ignoring the topic of consent.
Often, the conversation extends to “no means no”, and then is never discussed again, or the confusion that ensues when a child exercised their “no” regarding a clothing choice or a physical advance by a friend or relative, only to have that “no” ignored, isn’t processed.
Sometimes, the understanding that a person has the right to say “no” when something is happening to them that they don’t want, is thought to just be implicit knowledge… common sense.
Some people feel that consent only needs to be discussed in relation to sexual relationships or activities, and therefore is a subject that can be pushed off until adolescence or one that will hopefully be taught in schools.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
A study conducted at Valdosta State University shows that fostering a sense of control, self-awareness and an understanding of consent in your child can have huge long-term positive effects. Children who understand consent have an increased sense of self-worth, control, and positive self-esteem and go on to participate in healthier friendships and relationships in their adolescent years.
Now that I am a parent, I want nothing in the world for my daughter but happiness, success and good things. I feel strongly that giving her the tools to understand and exercise consent is one of the best things I can do to ensure that happens. One day, I hope to add a son to our little family, and if I am lucky enough to be able to do so, I’ll teach him the same lessons.
Consent isn’t a women’s issue, or a “when they’re older” issue, but rather a lesson all of our children can benefit from, now and in their futures.
Here’s how you can start teaching your young children about consent:
- Respect their No. If your child is telling you they don’t want to wear a certain outfit, or they don’t want to cuddle, hug or kiss a relative (including you), respect it. Obviously, if you child is trying to exercise their no when it comes to things like medical procedures, going to school, or wearing pants, gently teach them why “no” isn’t an option. But in any situation where their “no” can be respected, do so.
- Always ask first. “Would you like to go give grandma a kiss?”, “Would you like to give your friend a goodbye hug?” These are important questions. Use them. If your child says “No”, that’s that. Allow them to substitute a wave, blowing kisses, or saying “I love you!” for physical hugs and kisses.
- Encourage others to respect your child’s “no”. One of the biggest challenges to teaching consent isn’t actually your child, but the adult relatives and friends who don’t understand why you don’t just make little Bobby give Nana a kiss. Be prepared to defend your child’s decision to the adults around you, but be careful not to apologize for it! There’s a huge difference between “Bobby doesn’t feel like kisses today, how about a hi-five instead?” and “I’m sorry, Bobby doesn’t want to kiss you right now”. Back up your child’s “no” without apology or guilt. With time, you’ll have to defend your child’s “no” less and less as your family and friends begin to respect their “no” the way you do!
- Pay attention to other people’s “no”. Respecting consent is just as important as exercising it. Ask your child “How do you feel when people do things you don’t want them to do?” to encourage empathy, respect and understanding when faced with someone else’s “no”.
- It’s ok to find new friends. If you child’s playmate won’t listen to their “no” or “stop”, ask your child how it makes them feel. Help them decide if they still feel comfortable and safe playing with that playmate and let them know it’s ok to stop playing with someone they aren’t comfortable with or to find new friends.
- Model consent and encourage ownership. Bath time is an amazing learning opportunity when it comes to consent and bodily ownership. Ask your child’s permission before touching them. “I’m going to help wash your hair now, is that ok?”, “I’m going to wash your legs now, ok?”, and if your child says “no”, respect it! Hand them the wash cloth, and talk them through washing themselves.
I know that the idea of intentionally asking my daughter for her permission, and finding the patience to respect her when she doesn’t want to cuddle (even when I really, really do) seemed ridiculous and impossible when I first dedicated myself to teaching her these valuable lessons.
However in the long run, I’m confident that the ownership I’m giving her and the lessons she’s learning will take deep root in her brain, and be very well learned when she’s older, moved out, facing much more serious situations and I’m too far away to help.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take a moment to answer one of the following in the comment section:
- Is there anything about the idea of teaching consent to young children that makes you embarrassed, ashamed, or hesitant? Why?
- What other daily opportunities are there to model consent to your child?
- How would you go about respectfully defending your child’s “no” to a family member who doesn’t understand why they aren’t getting a hug and kiss?
- What other long-term benefits of teaching consent at a young age can you think of for young women? For young men?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
On the left side of a sheet of paper, write a list of day to day activities and opportunities to model and teach consent. On the right side, write a list of reasons that teaching consent young is important. Keep that list visible as a reminder to yourself throughout the day until these behaviors become habit, and you no longer find yourself feeling awkward or uncomfortable about respecting your child’s “no”.