Dear Ate Anna,
A friend told me about allowing her daughter to say “no” when her grandmother asked for a kiss. She said she is teaching her daughter about consent. I don’t understand her thinking. Isn’t she teaching her daughter to be rude to her elders? Can you explain this to me?
Dear Concerned Parent,
There is increasing awareness about the importance of talking and teaching about consent as part of taking action to reduce the incidence of sexual assault in our society. In fact, this year’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Week’s theme is “Consent Everywhere.”
Consent is about the belief that each person owns their body and has the right to decide if, when, and who is allowed to touch them. Media stories about sexual assault highlight that parents need to educate their sons and daughters about consent. And, as your friend is doing, this education needs to start when children are young.
While it may be difficult to say “no” to a relative who wants to hug or kiss your child, teaching positive consent means helping your children to be brave enough to trust their inner voice and speak up – even if that means going against cultural pressure to “respect your elders.”
And it is important not to try to convince your child to change their mind. This just teaches them to ignore their inner voice about what does and does not feel comfortable. They can always wave good-bye, blow a kiss, or offer a high-five, if that feels more comfortable. It may take courage on your part to stand up for your child when a relative is pressuring you, but it teaches an important message about respecting people’s feelings – their own and others’. You can always explain to your relative at another time what you’re trying to teach and why.
Children also need to learn that “yes” can become “no” and we can do this in everyday situations. For example, a child may enjoy being tickled or engaging in play wrestling. But there often comes a point when they have had enough of it. If the child says “no more,” you (or whoever is involved) need to listen and stop. Even if it is part of the play, you need to stop and check in with them.
This can also help your child if a game that starts off as normal childhood curiosity, like playing doctor or “show me your body and I’ll show you mine,” starts to feel uncomfortable. If a group of children are playing at your house, teach them to pause every so often and check in with each other to see if their play is going OK for everyone. This also teaches them to think about others and how they might be feeling.
You can also help create empathy in your child by explaining how something they have done may have hurt someone else. For example, “Your friend looks sad. I know you like that toy, but when you hit them, it hurts.” Also talk to your children about helping others who look like they are in trouble and praise them when they do help a friend or sibling. However, remind them that if an adult needs help with anything, it is the job of another adult to help.
Sometimes children develop a dislike for some activity that they have previously enjoyed. It could be anything – gymnastics, swimming, hockey, music lessons, etc. Often parents have their own reasons for wanting the child to stay involved in the activity and may insist that they continue – at least for a period of time. However, inviting a conversation about their feelings opens the door to learning more about who the child is becoming. When we focus on understanding the situation, we communicate that “Your opinion matters to me, your feelings matter, and I’m here to listen and we can talk about this.”
Giving your children the opportunity to say “yes” or “no” in everyday situations also teaches them about decision-making and consequences. Let them choose which clothes to wear, what to play, or how to wear their hair. Of course, parents are still responsible for a child’s safety. We can’t let our eight year old wear a summer jacket in -20 degree weather!
Parents can also teach consent by asking for it. Ask your child’s permission to touch them or come into their personal space. Knock before entering their bedroom. Ask, “Is it OK if I brush your hair?” By the time your friend’s daughter is a teen-ager she will likely have had hundreds of experiences at home where consent was modeled. She is more likely to expect that her body and feelings will be respected – and will do the same for others.
Consent is an important issue everywhere and for everyone.
Ate Anna welcomes your questions and comments. Please write to: Ate Anna, Suite 200- 226 Osborne St. N., Winnipeg, MB R3C 1V4 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please visit us at www.serc.mb.ca. You will find reliable information and links for many resources on the subject of sexuality.