The idea of consent and maintaining healthy, egalitarian relationships has been thrust into the limelight with Title IX scandals, the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and the #MeToo movement. The secret to combating unhealthy relationships and unwanted physical encounters lies in an unlikely place: Children.
It’s never too early to teach children about unhealthy relationships and the importance of consent. But simply having isolated conversations about these issues with children isn’t enough. The idea that we owe physical affection to someone or that someone is entitled to our emotional energy starts very early on in our development.
For many of us, thoughts of our childhood holidays come with memories of our parents commanding us to give some a hug or a kiss to a relative we rarely see and barely know. Most would see this kind of interaction as harmless enough — after all, physical touch is a way to convey affection and demonstrate familial ties. However, forcing children to interact with someone physically is a breeding ground for later misunderstandings of consent.
When a child is taught they owe someone physical touch because of affection that person feels for them, that idea becomes internalized. When it comes to children and the ways we interact with them, we have to remember that everything we do and say has an impact on the way young people understand their role in the world.
Healthy relationships are founded on mutual respect and care for the other person’s experiences. Instead of saying, “Give Aunt Jenny a hug,” and insisting upon it even if the child seems uncomfortable with the prospect of being engulfed in the arms of someone she doesn’t know well, it’s important to emphasize a child’s autonomy over her own body. Saying something like, “Aunt Jenny would really like to get a hug from you, if you would like to give one to her,” is a small change that can make a big difference in a child’s perception of themselves and their control over their own body.
Children often feel they have to appease the grown-ups in their family and put aside their own discomfort for the sake of someone else’s feelings. One mother, in writing for Motherwell Magazine, tells the story of an interaction between her 3 year-old daughter and her daughter’s grandfather. As he playfully tickles her, the mother notices her daughter shrinking in her seat, clearly trying to indicate to her grandfather that the interaction is unwanted.
“You can tell him no Mae. If this isn’t okay you could say something like, Papa, please back up—I would like some space for my body,” the mother tells her daughter.
This simple interaction gives Mae control over her own body and teaches her that she is in control of the situation. It initiates a lesson that Mae will take with her for the rest of her life and in her romantic encounters later on: No one is entitled to interact with her physical or emotional being without her consent.
The fact of the matter is, children are a lot smarter than we often give them credit for. They constantly analyze and classify the information around them. Not only is it important for us to model healthy relationships with our own actions, but it is also crucial that we affirm these values with our most casual, everyday interactions. Emphasizing consent in familial contexts is just one example.
Parenting and child development expert Deborah Gilboa told the Washington Post that friendships with their peers help children prepare for healthy relationships in the future.
For example, harmful phrases like “If they are mean to you, it’s because they like you” and “Boys will be boys,” perpetuate harmful iterations of relationship dynamics. Crude and bullying behavior, no matter what the underlying motive, should never be accepted. In particular, these phrases normalize toxic relationship characteristics like physical and emotional abuse. It also reinforces misogynistic gender stereotypes which limit the growth and individuality of all children. A child who grows up hearing “If they are mean to you, it’s because they like you,” could likely grow up to believe physical abuse in relationships is an indication of love from a partner.
In addition to our own behavior in the face of children, we need to expose children to media that challenges these commonly accepted and unhealthy models of relationships. For example, the new movie “Wreck-It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet” teaches children a unique moral about relationships. While Ralph fears that his friendship with Vanellope will end once she moves on to bigger and better things, he responds with resentment, jealousy and even attempts to destroy her opportunities that don’t include him. In the end, Ralph must face the monster he has become and learns that relationships evolve. The movies teaches that we can’t manipulate people into meeting our needs at their own expense.
These ideas about healthy relationships, consent and abuse may seem complex for children. However, it is imperative that we encourage healthy relationship practices in young children so the next generation can be more empathetic, egalitarian and respectful of consent.