Do you remember being little and a relative kissing you with super wet lips? You couldn’t wait to wipe it off but your parents told you not to be rude?
Or when you had to line up to go into class and hold the hand of the person next to you, the same person who had been your sworn enemy since yesterday recess?
What about when your favourite grown up tickled you without mercy and you were squealing stop stop stop! And they didn’t and suddenly you went from being deliciously frightened to actually panicked and afraid you would never breathe again?
Or maybe you played kiss chasey in the playground because the other kids were, and you didn’t want to be the prude? And so, you chased half-heartedly, caught someone and screwed up your lips to kiss them – even though you knew they didn’t want to kiss you either.
Think back over your childhood and try to count the number of times someone touched you when you didn’t want to be; touched you without your consent.
When we don’t ask children for permission before touching them, we are teaching them that they have no right to their own bodies; that their bodies are public property and belong to adults or to children with more physical or social power.
When we ignore a child who tells us – either verbally or with their body language – that they don’t want to be touched, we are telling them that they have no right to speak out.
We are teaching that their bodies are public property and if they speak out, they will be ignored.
You can see where I am heading with this. The child who has been muted into acquiescence can become the young adult who finds themselves frozen when being pressured for sex, not wanting to say yes but afraid of what will happen if they say no.
Or perhaps they will be the other person, unable to read the non-verbal cues that show that sex is unwanted, and not motivated to try because it’s always been OK to steal a kiss, pull a pigtail or punch a mate in the arm.
So how can we change things and raise children with a strong sense of bodily autonomy, kids who can seek consent from others and who feel safe giving or withholding consent? How do we raise kids who know where to turn if someone hurts them and feels secure in the knowledge that they will be heard and supported?
1: Ask for consent every time
Right from the time a baby is born we can start sending the message they have the right to make decisions about their bodies.
When we change our baby’s nappy, instead of telling them what you are doing, ask them instead. I know it sounds weird because it’s not like they are going to respond and dirty nappies need changing. But when we get into the habit of asking our infant permission and waiting a beat or two before getting on with changing them or bathing them, then we are teaching them that it’s normal to ask permission, that they should expect it throughout their lives.
2: Give or withhold consent
When your toddler lurches at you with open arms for a hug you can say something like I can see that you want to hug me, I would love a hug!
Also show them that they can’t always expect to have their physical desires met every time and immediately. I’m not saying to intentionally withhold affection, but there are many great teaching moments. For example, I know you really want to touch my face but you have honey all over your hands and I don’t like to be touched with sticky fingers. You can then help them work out a solution that meets both of your desires.
3: Listen to them
When a child asks you not to touch or to stop, STOP!
If you are roughhousing or tickling and they show signs of distress, stop immediately. You might say I could see you weren’t having fun anymore so I stopped. You can tell me if it doesn’t feel good and I will always stop.
So many children internalise the message that there is no point speaking up if someone hurts them.
4: Be their advocate with friends and family
Babies can’t yet talk and small children shouldn’t have to do all the work of keeping themselves safe. That’s our job. Talk to friends and family about your consent rules. This can be a tough one. Telling grandma that she has to ask and wait for permission before squishing those soft cheeks and sweeping that heavy body into a hug is hard. Getting her to accept a no every now and again without showing her hurt or disapproval can be a mammoth task.
5: … and with strangers
Getting friends and family on board with bodily autonomy and consent can be tricky, addressing it with strangers even harder as you are often taken by surprise.
How often have we seen a newborn and wanted to stroke their heads, kiss their cheeks or snuggle them? Or what about that toddler with the delicious tubby thighs and full head of bouncy curls? There’s something irresistible about them that makes us reach out and just touch them.
But if we do, we are sending the message that they are public property. That anyone can touch them whenever they want.
If a person reaches out for your toddler, you might say, this lady wants to stroke your hair because it looks so soft. Is that OK with you? Whether your child responds or not, you are telling them they have the right of response. You are also playing a part in educating the wider community about asking for consent.
6: But what health and hygiene?
I know, I’ve done it, too. I’ve wrestled with a two year old with a nappy full of toxic waste, a red raw bottom and the word NO on constant loop in their vocabulary. Nappies need changing, needles need to be given, teeth need to be brushed and doctors and dentists need access to bodies and mouths.
This is where you start teasing out the idea of necessary contact. You might say I know you don’t want you nappy changed right now because you told me so. I am worried that if I don’t change your nappy your bottom will become really sore.
When going to the doctor or dentist, make sure they also ask consent. The dentist might say, I want to see how your teeth are growing. Can I touch your mouth to have a look?
Hopefully if you have talked to your child about what is going to happen and why, they will say yes. But if they don’t you might want to think about how necessary the appointment is. If it’s just a check up it might be a good lesson in showing them that you really do listen. If there is a cavity that is causing pain, however, you will need to spend time explaining why the dentist needs to touch them and what your child needs in order to make it OK.
About the author
Deanne Carson is an internationally acclaimed speaker, writer and sexuality researcher and one of the founding members at Body Safety Australia. Body Safety Australia works with families, schools and communities to help keep children safe from abuse. To attend one of their workshops or have a Body Safety Superstar come to your school, playgroup of community group, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.