“Look but don’t touch.” How many times do we tell our little kids just that, and usually when we're entering a store or a museum? Probably every time. And, if you’re a grown-ass mom teaching your kid about consent, you tell them the very same thing at school drop-off, and on playdates, and everywhere else that requires your kid to be around other people.
Of course, it's an undeniable fact that kids are grabby little buggers, so it’s almost impossible to enforce a 100 percent successful “hands-off” policy with them. Touch is how they learn about their world, so they've been using that sense since the day they were born. That’s why skin-on-skin contact plays such a huge role in nurturing newborns and babies. As children get older, though, they need to learn how powerful touch can be, and why asking permission to touch someone else is always necessary.
We tell our kids not to pet strange dogs, yet we encourage them to give high-fives and hugs to people they might have just met; like a family friend or a new teacher or a child at the playground. I have been acutely aware of this hypocritical dynamic as my children have gotten older. As much as I need to protect them from inappropriate touching, I need them to understand why it’s important to ask first before touching anything, or anyone, too.
From the time I was 13, I was on the receiving end of uncalled-for touches. I’ve been groped on a crowded subway, pinned in a doorway on the street, straddled against my will in a college dorm room. And worse. That frightening, humiliating helplessness is not a feeling I want my kids to ever experience, or invoke in others.
If we are to destroy rape culture, we have to be grown-ass moms (and dads) when teaching our kids about consent. We have to do the hard things, the unpopular things, and the very necessary things, like these:
Preach "Hands To Yourself" Ad Nauseam
And then say it again. And again. And again.
When your kid's a baby, it’s about not grabbing mommy’s hoop earrings (plight of this Queens mama). When your kid's a preschooler, it’s about not hitting to express their emotions. When your kid's a loving kindergartner, it’s about asking someone if they want a hug before going in for an embrace.
My kids are nine and six, so the concept of consent in romantic scenarios is still a good number of years away. However, if I can teach them as kids to always respect others’ bodies, and not assume touching is ever OK without clear permission, I have done my job.
Be Clear About How You Want To Be Touched (Or Not)
I don’t particularly like being touched, probably because I’ve lived in an overcrowded city all my life. I like my space. However, as a parent personal space is non-existent. As a result I need to be very straightforward with my kids if they are pressing into me in ways that are either not comfortable or not acceptable. My daughter has a tendency to dig her elbow into my leg as she leans into me when I read to her. Comfy for her, not so much for me. Hearing me inform them how I do not want to be touched is important in the process of my kids truly understanding consent and others’ right to their own personal space.
An important part about understanding consent is understanding that you might not always be invited to the party. If someone doesn’t want you so close to them, there is absolutely no ground for you to contest that. Not obeying the rules of consent comes from a privileged, entitled mindset. It enforces a way of thinking where the transgressor believes he (or she) has agency over someone else’s personal space. We can’t wait until kids are teenagers to educate them on the aforementioned. They need to know it from Day One.
Let Them Know They Need To Speak Up If They Are Uncomfortable
My son, at age six, is quite vocal about his immediate needs. If something is bothering him, his response is direct and unfiltered (and usually delivered via whine, but we’re working on that).
My daughter, as she is entering her tweenage years (ugh), has developed more emotional intelligence. She doesn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, even if that person is doing something she may not like, like grabbing her shoulders, or squeezing her hand as they play. But it’s imperative she express herself, especially if she’s being touched in a way she doesn’t like, want, or appreciate. And yes, even a pat on the back is a touch someone might not like, and it’s OK to say so.
Separate Children Who Can’t Keep Their Hands To Themselves
I will be the mean mom about this. Honestly, I don’t care. If I see my kid getting physical with another kid — in a friendly, or adversarial way — I will pull my kid away. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, or even if they are having fun wrestling; I do not believe in encouraging physical play where it’s assumed that grabbing and climbing on someone is fair game.
My kids don’t participate in any organized sports that incorporate this behavior so I’m fine with putting my foot down when the situation calls for it. Unless my child joins a wrestling team (because there is no way either of them is playing football), I can’t allow him or her to use their bodies, or others’, as a jungle gym.
Ask For A Hug
Even though I’m someone who generally doesn’t like to be touched, I love my kids unconditionally and want to smush them with that love all the time. Of course I cuddled them as babies, and when they hurt themselves it’s instinctive for me to wrap them in my arms to comfort them. But when I want to hug them, just to hug them, I ask. And if they say “no,” I have to respect that. They rarely turn down hugs, but I want them to know it’s their prerogative to do so.
Not Make Them Hug Or Kiss Anyone
I’m all for forcing politeness out of my kids, because I think it’s the right thing to do. They should thank the person who hosted them for a birthday party, or knitted them that itchy hat for Christmas.
However, they are under no obligation to thank people in any other way than with words. I don’t like the idea of making kids hug or kiss their relatives. Being so close to someone should be a choice. After all, it’s an intimate moment, and if you don’t want to get that close to someone — even a grandparent — you shouldn’t have to.
Reach Out To Their Teachers
I don’t want the first time I hear from my kid’s teacher to be when my child does something wrong. I know teachers are so limited on time, and with over 30 kids in their class there is only so much a parent can expect a teacher to know about your kid. My mother was a teacher, so I know all too well that it's absolutely one of the hardest professions. I also know it’s better to be proactive, and catch my kid before she or he makes a mistake or becomes the victim of some other kid’s bad behavior, instead of solely relying on an overworked, underpaid teacher.
At my children’s school, teachers have dedicated times they are available for phone calls or in-person meetings. Honestly, they would much rather hear from a parent who is trying to help their kid do the right thing. I’m not bothering my kid’s teacher when I ask how my son is behaving, after hearing some stories from him about scuffles he’s had with other kids. If anything, the teacher makes a bigger effort to keep an eye out, knowing that I’m invested in collaborating with her, or him, to ensure my kid’s best performance in the classroom.
Observe Their Imaginative Play
Watching my kids (OK, eavesdropping on my kids) when they play with dolls or pretend to be superheroes or other fantastical characters provides keen insight into what’s on their mind at the moment.
Sometimes, what they might be struggling with, socially, may come out as they play act safely behind the guise of other characters. I may see them making dolls fight in ways that seem different than typical good guy versus bad guy action. Witnessing these scenarios prompts me to ask them if someone is bothering them at school, and getting physical with them. Or if they find themselves acting out in that way. I learn a lot from my kids when they think I’m not watching. (Yes, I realize I must soon stop this as they get older and I have to actually respect their privacy.)
Remind Them That They Have Autonomy Over Their Own Bodies
Sometimes you just need to say the actual words to your kid. “Your body is yours. You own it, you control it.” This should pique their interest. What else do kids control? Honestly, not all that much (especially at first), so make a big deal about it.
I am not exaggerating to them when I reiterate the importance of knowing that nobody is allowed to touch them without asking first, and that they need to respect every other person’s body the same way. It’s non-negotiable.