We forget, often enough, that most of what we learn happens when we’re young. The important things, like manners, values, morals, and core skills like speech and toilet training are all done while our brains are still mailable and building connections and pathways. This slows down as we get older, and learning new skills and behaviours becomes harder (although not impossible, it turns out you CAN teach and old dog new tricks) and so it’s important that we teach children everything they need to know about the world to stay safe and comfortable at a young age. But we all too often forget consent, and bodily integrity, and desperately try to teach those to older children and teens who often don’t care to hear what their oh-so-out of touch parents have to say. Before people freak out, I’m not talking about having the S-E-X talk with your two year old, I think in the grand scheme of things to do so would be a bit of a reach intellectually, but you can teach children about consent without ever talking about sex, and in turn we can grow a generation of children that understand that someones body is their own, and no-one else has a right to touch it without consent. We can have a generation that doesn’t see pinging bra straps and grabbing buttocks as acceptable, a generation who will never brag about grabbing women “by the pussy”, a generation where ‘kissing pranks’ are not a thing, a generation that knows that to respect someone is to respect ALL of them, body as well as mind.
First, let us clarify what I mean by consent and, most importantly, bodily integrity.
The definition of Consent, taken from Dictionary.com is:
verb (used without object)
1. to permit, approve, or agree; comply or yield (often followed by to or an infinitive):
He consented to the proposal. We asked her permission, and she consented.
2. Archaic. to agree in sentiment, opinion, etc.; be in harmony.
3. permission, approval, or agreement; compliance; acquiescence:
He gave his consent to the marriage.
4. agreement in sentiment, opinion, a course of action, etc.:
By common consent he was appointed official delegate.
5. Archaic. accord; concord; harmony.
As you can see, rather straightforward. Consent is at it’s base, to agree to or to give permission for an action or situation.
Bodily Integrity gets a bit more tricky, as you can’t just hop over to Dictionary.com and get a definition, and it can be used in a few ways depending on the situation, but generally it boils down to the same thing, as found on Children’s Rights International Council (CRIN):
“The principle of bodily integrity sums up the right of each human being, including children, to autonomy and self-determination over their own body. It considers an unconsented physical intrusion as a human rights violation.”
That essentially translates to being able to decide what happens to their body, when, how and by whom.
Why are these important?
Often with children we are prone to force them to participate in physical contact that they may or may not want, and in doing so we teach them that it’s not them who gets to decide what they do with their body, but people in a position of power and authority. Making them hug and kiss family and friends, while innocent enough, teaches them from an early age that their body is not actually their own.
It’s important to remember that bodily integrity effects all ages and genders, and a lack of it is particularly prevalent in cases of abuse. Surely arming our children with a strong understanding of their body and who has a right to it as early as possible is important in setting them up to fight against abuse, to know what is and isn’t acceptable, and gives them the power to know when to fight back and how to do so? To know that no matter who it is, no-one is allowed to do things to them without their consent.
In doing so, in providing our children with this, we will grow stronger, more independent and respectful children. We will give them the tools to make the best choices, to stand strong in their convictions, and to know that we will support them and encourage them to be the best and strongest that they can be. Coupled with other things we teach them, we will be able to grow a generation of people unwavering in their defense of their bodies and the bodies of their peers. Maybe gone will be the culture of victim blaming when everyone understands that no-one has a right to your body, regardless of what you wear or whether you drink. Maybe gone will be the culture of rape threats online, or talking about peoples bodies as if they were objects instead of part of a person. I don’t know. But I know that it’s important to give our children the best shot at that, by giving them the tools they need to achieve it.
What can we do to teach our children this?
We, as a society, teach our children about Stranger Danger, which is fabulous, but does nothing but play into the belief that abuse only comes from strangers, when in fact most instances of abuse and rape are committed by people known to the victim. If we teach children instead about their body and not allowing people to touch it without consent, we can better arm them from abuses from all sides. It means giving a level of control to children, not forcing them to give grandma a hug and a kiss goodbye, instead offering them the choice to do so if they wish to. Not forcing hugs for peers so we can get a cute picture, not forcing hugs to nursery workers or friends of ours, not forcing “I’m sorry” hugs to peers when a simple “I’m sorry” will suffice. Always, instead, offering the child the option. “We’re leaving now, do you want to give nana a kiss goodbye?” and then they decide, they get to choose who gets to contact their body and why. And in situations where physical contact is compulsory (a doctors exam, hospital visit, dentist, etc), we must explain clearly what is going to happen and why, so that they understand where the line between compulsory and unnecessary lays.
Of course people will think, at least at first, that we are raising rude children. We are so conditioned to feel that to say goodbye to family and friends requires a hug and a kiss, especially from children, that anything else is seen as rude. But if we explain the reasons as to why we are allowing our children the option, eventually they will be used to it, and they will see something magickal. When the child offers a hug, kiss, or cuddle off of their own back, it means so much more than one given because it’s expected. It holds more truth, more feeling, and more care.
We pride ourselves in teaching our children to share, to say please and thankyou, to be kind, to help others, to do their best; so why shouldn’t we teach them to know and respect their body and the sanctity of it while we teach them these other values?
Because that, I think, is equally important.