When we talk about consent we are not just talking about consent in a sexual context. Consent is something we can practise during everyday acts, such as asking to take someone’s picture or if you can hug them. The hope is that these small(er) daily acts of consent will work to create a culture where asking for consent is normalized, and feels easier.
And if we are trying to integrate consent into our everyday lives, it becomes necessary to talk to young humans about it. Regularly in our workshops folks comment that they wished they had learned about consent and rape culture before university.1
But even public school seems too late a start. Children learn by what they witness and the way they are treated, and so when it comes to teaching consent, much of the early learning comes from how children’s boundaries are listened to and respected by their parents, families, and guardians.
A disclaimer on the authors’ position
We should be upfront: none of the authors of this piece are parents. None of us have kids that we are directly responsible for, and so basically don’t really get to weigh in on the how/when/what/who’s of parenting. This piece is more of a musing on consent culture and how it pertains to the ways we treat children.
More on children and consent
When thinking about children and consent, the first thing that comes to mind are the many crying photos I have seen of children being forced to sit on Santa’s lap in the mall. You’ve seen those shots; the kids are sobbing, red in the face, looking terrified or disinterested, and yet, are still being coaxed by adults to do it anyways.
And then there is a common dynamic played out with relatives. Children are expected to accept kisses, hugs, tickles, and piggy-back rides from their older relatives in the name of “politeness”. Those who react negatively to unwanted attention are “acting up” or being disrespectful or even hurtful towards the individual they are rejecting. They may even end up being punished for really just trying to say no.
What is this teaching kids?
Firstly, these expectations can communicate to kids that there is an expectation for them to accept contact/advances regardless of if they desire it. When children are taught they are not allowed to say no to a hug from a family member, we wonder if this blurs other boundaries and contexts. Do some children, for example, think they aren’t supposed to say no when someone wants to touch them in a sexually abusive way? Many would say that most children know the rules are different when a stranger tries to hurt you than when grandma tries to hug you, but in the majority of cases, the abuser IS a familiar person. And children struggle with the nuances of context at the best of times. In one way, a child could be hugged by someone in public and then abused by them in private. If they weren’t allowed to say no to the hug, how should they know they can say no to a more harmful touch?
Secondly, it teaches kids that it is ok to have entitlement over other people’s bodies. If adults don’t have to ask them before picking them up and hugging them, they probably aren’t going to think of asking their friend before giving them a hug on the playground. As they get older this entitlement can evolve into more harmful assumptions about their right to others’ bodies sexually. We’re raising young humans without modelling consent, and so it’s no surprise that so many folks enter adulthood unsure of how to ask for consent, listen to responses, and respect others’ boundaries.
To be honest it reminds me of my relationship with cats
As a cat parent, one of the many lessons that my sweet baby furball angel darling roommate has taught me is how to learn to show love in different ways. I often want to squeeze her and cuddle her and pick her up and kiss her head, and to her this (most likely) doesn’t feel like love. Sometimes I would say it feels like abuse, or irritation, to her. Either way it often appears to be unwanted. And so I have learnt to express my love to her in ways that respect her boundaries. Like soft petting, or treats.
This understanding of boundaries (which is not being modeled enough to children) is so important, not only in the sense of physical and sexual interactions, but in emotional relationships as well. It is rare that two people who are romantically involved have exactly the same wants, needs, and boundaries. It is common to feel hurt or angry when someone doesn’t want to be with us in a particular way that we want. We feel like we have a right to be with that person in the way we want (whether that be a certain amount of time spent together, a specific relationship title, a sexual act, a sleep-over, etc) because we love them.
But when you really love someone you respect their boundaries and needs, even if that means missing out on something you want.
Consent is something that we can bring into many elements of our daily lives. It has the potential to bring more care and understanding to relationships. It gives us the tools to respect people’s boundaries, and in doing so demonstrate our own respect for them. Teaching consent at a young age is a start in reaffirming children’s autonomy and value.
this post was written by Robin Gordon and meg neufeld
If this topic interests you, check out these videos by Zuri and Stacey-ann Chin:
- It should be noted that this sort of work IS already going on. The Ontario school board just updated its curriculum to include discussions on consent in sex education. In Victoria, Project Respect and other organizations have been doing consent work and other workshops on gender and healthy relationships in middle schools and high schools. ↩