My son will undoubtedly be thrilled to see my sister this month. Whenever he hears the FaceTime ring, he shrieks her name in anticipation of their chat. However, if it takes him a while to warm up to Auntie Katie since our last visit, that’s understandable. Katie also has children and knows that it is not just about respecting our babies’ personal space; we are teaching them about consent.
It can be tricky when the relative seeking a kiss from your child doesn’t receive it in return. It may feel like a personal affront when a little one denies their offer to snuggle and, as parents, there may be pressure to apologize for the perceived slight, or even coax the wee one into their loving relative’s arms. The message we send when we do this is that physical contact is owed to certain people, by nature of the relationship, regardless of whether it feels good.
These interactions may seem innocuous: What’s the harm in one hug? It’s from someone you love, after all. And they gave you a present! You don’t want to make them feel bad, do you? You hugged them last time you saw them… However, the path to date rape and other forms of sexual harassment can follow chillingly-similar lines of logic. When we prioritize other peoples’ desire to be physically affectionate (however well-intentioned) over bodily autonomy, we are depriving our child the chance to learn how to set boundaries.
The Harvard Graduate School of Education has reinvigorated this conversation with a report published last month showing that an estimated 87% of women aged 18-25 in the U.S. have been sexually harassed. These findings are serious, and all children will benefit from understanding how to set boundaries for themselves, and to respect those of others. Of course I am not equating our loved ones’ affection with assault. Still, it is understandable that children may have difficulty understanding bodily autonomy if they have learned at home that personal boundaries are trivial. Indeed, this Harvard study suggests that most parents and educators aren’t talking with young people about consent at all.
As a school counselor, I have taught hundreds of children about consent; this can be done at any age. We discuss the importance of asking permission before offering a hug. We learn about reading body language and experiencing empathy for others. Even young students appreciate personal space, and should be taught how to say no to unwelcome touch. Hugs can be heartwarming, bond-enhancing acts of kindness, but only if all participants are enjoying it. While parents and educators world-wide teach children to use their manners, it is important that young people also know they have the right to be firm when it comes to unwanted physical contact.
For international families, this is a particularly salient issue. Children abroad may not see extended family and friends for spans of months or years at a time, so close physical contact might not feel appropriate upon reunification. International families sometimes harbour guilt at separating their children from relatives and friends back ‘home’, which can exacerbate the situation. And even if, as in the case with my son and his Auntie Katie, the child adores the person, seeing them face-to-face for the first time in a while may feel overwhelming.
5 ways to support children learning about consent:
- If you haven’t already, start talking about consent with your child now. The full report from Harvard includes recommendations and resources for teaching children about healthy relationships, with a focus on preventing misogyny and sexual harassment.
- Check with the school about lessons your child has received on consent so you can reinforce the message, language, and strategies at home.
- Have a chat with family and friends before reunions to let them know your child is learning about consent. This way they won’t be caught off-guard.
- Offer your child the option to give a high five/fist bump/wave instead. These can be friendly alternatives to a hug or kiss.
- Finally: be prepared! We have all had the experience of being caught, with our child, in an awkward situation. (I will never forget the first time – yes, it happened more than once – that a friend stuck her finger in my baby’s mouth. You’d better believe I had a quick response ready the second time someone tried this.) If you and your child have a plan for how to respond to unwanted touch, they will feel more confident asserting their needs, and you will be prepared to support them.
How and when does your school teach students about consent?
What are your favourite resources for talking to children about consent?
 Weissbourd, R., Anderson, T. R., Cashin, A., & McIntyre, C. (2017). The talk: How adults can promote young people’s healthy relationships and prevent misogyny and sexual harassment [Executive Summary]. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education.
 Children should also learn about exceptions, such vaccinations from the doctor, which are not necessarily welcome touch, but required for health and safety. I teach students that these exceptions should never be a secret and, if in doubt, to seek help from a trusted adult.