Have you ever heard a grown man complain that consent is too complicated to understand? That excuse is often a cop out; however, comprehending consent does take effort and practice. Learning to read another person’s willingness to be intimate with you is a lot like learning to read – you’ll get better and more advanced over time. That’s why it’s so important to teach kids about consent from a young age, the way we teach them phonics and The Alphabet Song. And of course, teaching kids about consent begins at home.
One of the first places many of us encounter consent violations is in our own families. Parents pressuring kids to hug extended family members they hardly know at Christmas dinner may seem innocuous, but the message is clear: “making someone else feel good is more important than what feels good for you.” Saying no to physical contact another person craves is cast as rude, withholding, and cruel. It’s not hard to see how the five year-old girl who was pressured into hugging her cousin might feel like she has no right to rebuff the advances of a boy she’s not attracted to in adolescence, or even adulthood.
When it comes to academics, society accepts what kids learn when they’re young sets them up for success later in life. There may be disagreements over which school subjects should be emphasised or the importance of small class sizes, but there’s a general consensus that what you teach a kid in kindergarten becomes the foundation for later learning, even learning as advanced as Quantum Physics or Post-Modern French philosophy. But at the same time, so many of us expect adults to “get” consent without teaching them the concept as kids. What gives?
Obviously, schools have to play a part in changing social norms. It’s egregious how little discussion there is about concepts like Consent and Rape Culture in most Sex Ed classes, or even throughout the education system in general. But we as adults can also model proper behavior for children in our lives by not violating their physical boundaries. If a kid doesn’t want to hug you, don’t make them, and don’t beg them. Instead, ask if you can give them a high five, or just give a little wave, or maybe blow them a kiss. Just like adults don’t owe you affection, kids don’t either. And just like adults, kids have agency over their own bodies, and can be asked and in turn give verbal consent. They say the best way to learn is by doing, and this two way lesson can not only help adults do better when it comes to consent, but can also arm a child with that knowledge for life.
The more we expose kids to unwanted physical contact in their youth, the more disoriented they’ll be when the concept of consent is introduced to them. If you’ve grown up being pressured into hugging your uncle at Easter, you may struggle to see why you shouldn’t nag a disinterested date into oral sex. It’s time to stop giving kids messages that are contradictory. This Holiday Season, give kids the gift of respecting their boundaries. The world will be a better place in a ten years because of it.