This is a continuation of my post on the ways we can teach children consent, by using their relationships with us to set a precedent of “asking before touching”. I decided to branch off and focus on the ways we can help empower children – by seeking to understand and respect their boundaries, especially as they pertain to personal space invasions by adults.
In my previous post I talked about how important it is for children to learn they are entitled to consent (or not) to social interactions; and how even well-meaning adults sometimes encroach on this. When you are preoccupied with having only good intentions, it doesn’t occur to you to think you’re making someone uncomfortable. But it’s easy to feel such strong attachments with our children that we lose sight of the fact we may not always be welcome in their personal space.
But I can’t be proposing that we ALWAYS need to ask, verbally and explicitly, and perhaps at risk of spoiling the moment, before reaching out to another person?? That can’t be the only way people give consent – and it isn’t. For example I did not always used to ask my partner’s permission before taking his hand, or ask my sister’s consent before giving a hug. With people we know well, we can learn to read signs of implicit consent. Things that are so subtle I couldn’t even adequately describe them here – those moments that you get a smile, a look, a mutual feeling that something comfortable and special is going on. People that children are the closest to generally learn to read their moods and their body language. There is still a developmental difference though – with adults that I know well, within the realm of their known boundaries, I typically assume something is okay unless they tell me otherwise. This may not be the best approach with children – they are still learning, and we need to make it expressly clear that it is okay to say no by reinforcing each and every time.
There are also unavoidable situations for children where we can’t ask their consent, where their opinions need to be mediated by adult judgment. For example, a parent doesn’t always ask their infant if they may place them in the high chair, or ask before grabbing their hand to cross the street. Children do need guidance and supervision. All that aside , EVERYONE has the right to control when and where and how they are touched by others. Children are more often denied the opportunity to consent in situations where it would be very appropriate. Children, collectively, are frequently and summarily denied rights that they would be entitled to if they were older. I’m talking about decisions everyone has a right to make about their personhood.
Vera at Dancing in the Darkness established a Recovery Bill of Rights for Trauma Survivors, which highlights specific entitlements everyone has regarding their selves/bodies. Here is an excerpt:
For the Preservation of Personal BOUNDARIES, You Have the Right …
…to be touched only with your permission, and only in ways that are comfortable
…to choose to speak or remain silent, about any topic or at any moment
…to choose to accept or decline feedback, suggestions, or interpretations
…to ask for help in healing, without having to accept help with work, play, or love
…to challenge any crossing of your boundaries
…to take appropriate action to end any trespass that does not cease when challenged.
Would you generally agree that these are things all humans are entitled to…even ones that are younger? Aren’t children less experienced versions of adults, who need to learn these things now? These rights are often denied to children on the basis of their age, “maturity”, presumed incompetence or inability to reason/understand. They may even be told this is for their own good! Sound familiar? That’s right, those are some of the very justifications used to marginalize other groups of people. Please compare these rights in the context of the brilliant Adult Privilege Checklist,put together by Anji at Shut Up, Sit Down: .
As a child:
6. I am routinely ignored or told to be quiet. [….]
11. Adults often feel they have the right to harass me.
a. Adults feel it is their right to talk to me even after I make it clear I do not wish to talk to them.
b. Adults feel it is their right to touch me (tousle my hair, pinch my cheek) without my permission. […]
13. People often make decisions on my behalf and tell me that they know better than I do what is best for me. […]
23. My sexual development is often not explained to me and sometimes actively discouraged. […]
We can’t help children to be empowered if our actions are communicating disempowering things to them. Asserting power over children just because we don’t stop to think about it, is really just a form of benevolent prejudice. What do you think – do children deserve to be treated the same way as adults with regards to their personal boundaries? Where do you draw the line between guidance and control?