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Teaching Boundaries and Consent Starts as Early as the A-B-Cs

Thanks to decades of awareness, prevention and advocacy efforts by victims, parents, schools, service programs, some politicians (Delaware’s own Joe Biden) and media coverage, the concept of sexual consent has become more familiar in recent years. My first formal education about consent came during my Senior year of high school in an elective human sexuality course. It was there that I was introduced to the notion that consent does not mean the absence of a “no” but rather, pertained to permission, the “yes”.

Fortunately, as a parent, I see that consent is something we usually teach children from a very young age in their interactions with others. To a child who takes a toy from his playmate: “Did you ask her if you can play with that toy?” or in choosing what or how to play “Can you ask him what he wants to do, whether he wants to play legos?” In our homes, our classrooms, or on the playground, there are unlimited opportunities to teach children appropriate boundaries: not to assume what others want and not to make choices for others, but instead, the respectful skill of asking (aka consent).

We have plenty of opportunities to teach and model the importance of consent in our adult interactions with children as well. Have you ever witnessed a child being pressured, bribed, or forced into physical affection at a family gathering for instance? “If you come give grandmom a kiss, I have a toy for you” or heard an adult say something like, “I’m not leaving until you give me a big hug” or “go sit on so-and-so’s lap”? Children are taught to obey adults and that adults know best. While children are young and developing, they are still human beings with feelings, reactions, and their own boundaries. We can honor their developing selves by recognizing and respecting their feelings and allowing them to navigate their boundaries. This may include supporting them when they want to withdraw from or refuse certain physical interactions. After all, as adults, don’t we expect to be free to decide who we want to be physically affectionate with? To those who don’t view children as having that same right, at what age do they suddenly earn it? Overlooking children’s rights to their bodies and their boundaries teaches them to ignore their own discomfort for the sake of someone else’s wishes or feelings, and is one way of promoting the insidious dynamics of sexual abuse. Instead of “Go sit on Uncle’s lap and give him a squeeze”, starting with a simple “Do you want to…” is modeling the expectation that they should be asked (and should ask). We can also recognize when a child is uncomfortable and offer alternatives without pressure, scolding or embarrassing them: a high five, special handshake, blowing kisses or other ways of communicating fondness or affection.

If we equip our children with respect for their bodies and others’, support them in recognizing their comfort levels and boundaries, teach them the importance of obtaining consent from others, and their right to give or withhold consent, they will be better protected and can grow into adolescents and adults who know and expect consent as the norm. And only then will they be less likely to violate someone (or on the other hand, be violated). Given the staggering percentages of Americans who’ve experienced sexual assault at some point in their lives (the majority of those experiences perpetrated by someone known to victim) and the potential for incredibly damaging physical and emotional impacts, we can never start too early in teaching consent as one piece of preventing sexual assault.

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