I have been on a bit of a consent crusade the last couple of years. I'm raising both a daughter and a son, which leads me to think about consent issues from all angles. I want to ensure that both of my children know not only that they are the bosses of their own bodies, but that other people's bodies are just as much their own. This can be tricky at times, as we are one of those cuddly families and we're always hugging and kissing each other. The following scenario plays out at least once a week:
Daughter: (screaming incoherently because...usually something the twin has done)
Son: I'm sorry. Are you okay? Do you need anything? (goes to give sister a hug)
Daughter: I DON'T WANT A HUG!!!
Son: (begins brokenly sobbing) I FEEL UNLOVED!
Mommy: (after several deep breaths) She gets to choose if she wants a hug or not--it's her body. That doesn't mean she doesn't love you.
Son: (still sobbing) But I just wanted to help her feel better!
Daughter: I DON'T WANT A HUG!!!
Son: (sobbing turns frenzied)
Mommy: (more deep breaths) You can ask her what else you could do to help her feel better.
Son: What (sob) else (sob) can (sob) I do (sob) to help you (sob sob) feel better?
Daughter: You can bring me special blankie. That would help me.
Son: (runs off to get blanket, comes back, she takes it, everyone is happy again...although by now Mommy often has a headache)
As you can see, this process is not an easy one. I'd also like to point out that the two roles can switch just as easily--sometimes she's the one upset that he doesn't want a hug. (My role remains constant. Sigh.) BUT...it's that important. This is one of those things that are so important to me I am willing to go through this, over and over and over and over again until it becomes ingrained in each child's mind: YOU get to choose who touches you, and YOU are not unloved in that moment--simply ask to see what else you can do to help.
The lessons are manifold and ones I wish all adults understood..in particular the bit about not taking it personally if someone (especially a child) doesn't want a hug or kiss. My hope is that by learning this now, the kids will understand that touch is a powerful tool and can communicate love and comfort. And that you need permission to use that tool. If someone isn't comfortable with touch at that moment, use your communication skills to find out what else you can do to give them love and comfort. Boom. Everyone is happy and college campus rape statistics drop dramatically in 13 years.
But it wouldn't be a crusade if it ended at my own family. Here is what I started to do at our preschool and on all play dates, and what I encourage parents and teachers everywhere to begin: The Consent Clause. Get consent BEFORE the game. Before you start playing tag or chase or poison butterflies or whatever kind of game involves the other kids, ask them if they want to play...and make sure you hear them say, "Yes," before you play with them.
It's incredibly simple, and I wish I'd thought of it years ago. I don't know how many times I've knelt with child A because child B had tagged/imprisoned/poisoned/etc. them in Game X...and child A hadn't even known they were playing. The conversation is completely different if you have the consent clause in place! Then you can talk about the rules of the game (esoteric as they are at times), and how child A said they wanted to play, and how they can stop playing at any time if they want to. Then it becomes a conversation about personal responsibility, about making the choice of whether or not they want to continue, how they can work together to change the rules, about cooperation--lots of good choices. Child A is in a position of power, because s/he is a part of the game, of the process, and can therefore affect its outcome. Or choose to leave the game, which is also okay. Child B learns from the get-go to ask first, that everyone is part of the game, and that anyone can stop playing if they want. And both children learn that the game is super fun when everyone wants to be part of it!
If you are a parent or teacher (or both!), you may want to consider ways to introduce consent to your kids at a much younger age than you'd previously thought. Having it be a part of life from early on takes it into the realm of auto-pilot when they get older, instead of being one more skill to learn during adolescence. Just like we make, "Please," and, "Thank you," an automatic part of their speech, we can make asking and receiving consent an integral part of their social interactions. Because a safer world for our boys and girls starts here and now, with us.
Telling Your Brain the Truth (or, I Guess They DO Listen!)