As mothers we share our bodies with our infants for the months before their birth. If they are to be born safely into this world, neither they nor we can choose to give up the bond of touch between us. And then, a few minutes after birth, when the umbilical cord is cut, they and we are free.
Of course, they miss the warmth of our bodies, the beat of our hearts. They crave our touch, and we crave them. We hold them close, and they snuggle in. We will caress them, and squeeze them, and plant kisses on them, and stroke them, and tickle them for as long as they’ll let us. And one of the most powerful, terrifying fears that we face is that one day someone will touch them without that love; will touch them to hurt them. And that when that happens, we won’t be there to protect them from harm.
We hold them close…
We can’t be there to protect them for ever, so we need to arm them ready to go out in the world independently. And one of the most powerful ways that we can prepare them and help them stay safe is to make sure they understand that their bodies are their own, and that no-one gets to touch them in a way they don’t like. No one touches them without their consent.
Can you teach a baby about consent?
Yes. You can teach a baby, a newborn baby, about consent. Crazy? Not at all.
Many cultures have traditions of massaging their babies in infancy. This starts straight after birth, as an alternative to bathing; gently massaging the remaining vitamin-K-rich vernix into the baby’s skin. The practice of massaging babies has now become quite mainstream and many mothers will be taught baby massage. When you learn to massage your baby, you should be taught to start by asking your baby’s permission. (If your baby massage teacher does not do this, gently question why not?)
Can you teach a baby about consent? Yes.
It may seem absurd to ask a pre-verbal infant for “permission” before massaging them, but babies very quickly learn to recognise a set of cues. You undress them for a massage and gently rub the oil warm between the palms of your hands, making sure to do so in their eyeline, and then make sure the first touch is always to stroke their feet. After only a few days, if they are in the mood for a massage, they will start to wave their feet towards you when they can see you warm the oil. When you don’t get the outstretched feet response (and they stay scrunched up in a typical baby pose) you know massage isn’t what they want right now; respond to that by not massaging them. Congratulations. You have just had your first conversation with your baby about bodily autonomy and consent.
I’m not ready to talk to my child about sex.
Talking about consent with a young child doesn’t involve talking about sex. Remember tickling games? How tickling starts out funny and giggly, and then it starts to be painful and horrid? Remember writhing and squirming and yelling for the tickler to stop? If you want your child to learn about consent, be the tickler that stops straight away when it stops being fun. Children will be quick to say “again, again!” if all they needed was a breather. If you’ve ever been the victim of an over-enthusiastic bony fingered tickler and can remember the relief when they stopped at last, give your child that gift. Honour their boundaries. And police their games to the same rules. I teach my children an important lesson every time I intervene in a rough game when one of them sounds unhappy, and the others complain that it was “just a bit of fun”. It’s only fun, I remind them, if everyone’s having fun.
Stop! is a safe word in our house.
Don’t do that, it’s not nice. is a safe phrase.
Children don’t get it straight away, and they will often offer as a reason for carrying on “but I like it when [little brother] does it to me”. And that’s the time to remind them that what they like isn’t the same as what everyone likes; that “it doesn’t hurt” may be true for them, but not for their sibling or their friend. That it’s only fun if everyone’s having fun.
Applies to tickling games in childhood too.
They need to hear over and over when they are little until they understand, that when they want to, but someone else doesn’t want to, they should find something else to do. Then they will have no trouble when they are older understanding that as women they can tell a man to stop, and that as men, they can stop when told. And, because men can be sexually assaulted, and women can commit sexual offences, they will also understand that the other way round (and any other combination) is also true.
But want to or not, they’ve got to kiss their grandma!!
No, they really don’t.
You can help your young child to understand and assert their bodily autonomy if you never demand that they accept a touch that they don’t want. It’s reasonable to expect your child to be courteous and not to yell that grandma smells of Lambert & Butler or that Uncle John’s whiskers are scratchy and have bits of dinner in them, but that courtesy doesn’t have to extend to letting them be kissed and squeezed against their will. Above all, don’t ever let them think they they will earn approval from you if they let themselves be touched against their will. This isn’t because you should assume Grandmas and Uncles are serial abusers. This is simply because the more your child practices asserting their bodily autonomy, the better they’ll get at it.
Having difficulty helping your child assert their boundaries? (It can sometimes cause conflict in families if you don’t let your cuddly child become their squeeze toy). Get a copy of Uncle Willy’s tickles.
This isn’t about “inappropriate” touching in the sexual sense. This is simply about a child’s right to say “no” to touch that is unwanted.
(And here’s a link to some more, similarly helpful resources: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Its-Body-Uncomfortable-Childrens-prevention/dp/0943990033)
Every single helpful resource you can find for parents (or professionals) about keeping children safe will reiterate these basic messages. This great Kidscape Leaflet (http://www.kidscape.org.uk/assets/downloads/kskeepthemsafe.pdf) highlights many important ways to help your children stay safe as children and grow into adults who will be safe and not cause harm to others. They need to know how to:
- Say no
- Refuse touches
- Break rules (if that’s necessary to keep them safe)
All this stuff is too young for my children
As your children get older their school and other organisations like youth clubs will (or should) start discussing issues of consent as part of their PHSE curriculum. If they do, be prepared to support those conversations at home. But if they don’t (and some schools remain weak on this important aspect of education), you may need to develop the whole conversation yourself. How and when will depend on your child. But hopefully some of the important foundations outlined above will already be there.
BishUK.com is a great site with age appropriate information about sex and relationships for teens.
Here’s the section on Sex and the Law, which will help your older child / young adult to understand what the legal boundaries are and what that may mean for them in their relationships: http://bishuk.com/2009/08/02/sex-and-the-law/
In personal terms, this section Should I have sex? (http://bishuk.com/2009/08/01/should-i-have-sex/) may be the most important one for your child(ren) to read. Like all responsible advice, it rehearses messages that your child will (hopefully) have heard all their life, including “You could say no, and that would be OK”. Or this section Talk to the Hand (http://bishuk.com/2009/10/20/talk-to-the-hand/) which gives your older child / young adult the tools and skills to say NO in this higher pressure situation.
Scarleteen is another super site with high quality sex education content and lots of wise advice about consent here: http://www.scarleteen.com/article/boyfriend/drivers_ed_for_the_sexual_superhighway_navigating_consent
One of the site’s best features is its list of verbal signals of consent and non-consent. As you’ll see from the link, silence features more than once on the non-consent list.
There’s also a list of non-verbal signals of consent and non-consent. And the site has some really clear advice about signs that a sexual partner doesn’t care about consent, and is therefore a risk to your son or daughter. It’s so important, I’ve cheekily extracted it here. Share it with your sons and daughters:
What are some clues someone doesn’t care about consent?They act like they’re in a big hurry. They act like you or others owe them sex or they owe you sex. They’re not asking how you’re feeling or what you want: they seem only or mostly focused on themselves or they are ONLY focused on you and seem to have none of their own desires or limits. They don’t really seem to be all there. They’re ignoring or trying to change some of your stop signs, like pushing them away, not wanting to get naked, saying you’re not sure or saying no. You feel unsafe or worried; unable to speak up or say no or are worried they’re unsafe or can’t speak up. They react with anger, resentment or self-injury when you don’t immediately say yes to sex. They don’t seem to have personal boundaries.
If any of those things are going on, do yourself a favor and just get away from that person or situation pronto. If you were wrong, it’s okay: no one is done big harm by not getting laid
We can’t protect our children from hurt for ever, but we can prepare them to protect themselves. Most of us would want our children to enjoy full and happy sex lives with a partner or partners of their choice. Understanding their own (and others’) right to bodily autonomy, and their freedom to give or withhold consent is an important part of that preparation.
They need to know the score. Then, when they are wrapped up in the warmth of another body, and close to the beat of another heart, we can be confident it’s what they want, and they are having joy and fun.