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Can Teaching Consent Young Heal Our Broken Culture? These Parents Think So

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I sat down on the couch and observed the a chaotic swirl of children running past me. We were at birthday party for one of my daughter’s classmates. It was loud, with sugar flowing like water, and one group of kids were chasing one another through the house while another handful of kids sat inches away from a television eyes glued to Captain Underpants. A boy with a loud clicking noisemaker taunted a young girl. He followed her and stuck the noise maker in her face. “Stop,” she said as he pushed her into a corner, continuing to push the noise maker close to her face. Her hands covered her face as she cowered in the corner, screaming “Stop! Stop!” It was a small but clear-as-day breach of consent happening between elementary-schoolers — a perfect example of what happens if we don't teach consent from a young age.

I saw this all happening from across the room and quickly made my way over to the two children.

“Freeze our bodies,” I declared as I stood grounded next to the small boy.

I asked the 6-year-old to give the girl space and then checked in with her — she was shaking and in tears. I told the boy, my eyes meeting his, ”Stop always means stop.” I explained that the girl he was interacting with wanted space and that we give someone space when they ask for it.

The girl had run off in tears when I started talking with the boy. When I found her afterward I told her that I saw what happened. I told the girl, “I want you to know that I heard your words. I heard your 'No' and that your words matter. No one has the right to touch your body or invade your space.”

This wasn’t the first time that I had witnessed elementary-aged kids pushing one another’s boundaries and breaching consent. Just a week before, my child had come home from school and told me that on the playground she was cornered by a boy who pushed against the fence and proceeded to hit her with a jump rope.

My daughter, who I had taught about consent and body agency from an early age, told the boy, “Stop. I don’t consent.” But he continued. Then the same boy started chasing and threatening her friends on the playground.

She told her friends, “Stay with me. If we stick together in a group then they might stop.” When the girls stayed in a group protecting one another, the boy’s advancements stopped and they felt the power dynamic shift. They backed away.

I spoke with the teachers multiple times about these instances but all that was offered up was that my child should seek the teacher after things like this happen and then the aggressors would be punished. Punishment in this school typically looked something like sitting outside of the group, not participating or trips to the principal’s office. However, there was nothing in place for conflict resolution, development of socio-emotional or communication skills, or conversations around seeking active consent on the playground.

We were born into a culture of non-consent.

My child didn’t want to go to school any more. It didn’t feel like a safe place and I didn’t blame her. I, too, remembered being 6 and 7 years old and boys already positioning themselves in a place of power around my body by chasing, cornering me and touching my body.

One “game” that I vividly remember being terrified of on the playground was what the boys called “titty twisters.” The boys would chase girls on the playground and if you were too slow and got caught or cornered by one or more of the boys they would give you “titty twisters” — a pinching and twisting of the nipple. The adults did nothing to stop the behavior, but if a girl kicked or hit a boy in that situation they would get detention and wind up in the principal's office — it could even end up on your “permanent record.”

For me as a child, institutionalized sexism was ever-present. Given no guidance surrounding consent and body agency, the messages I was receiving told me that if a boy has you cornered, suck it up and take it. And of course if you were the one being chased after, generally the other girls took to calling you a slut and turning against you, too.

As the #MeToo movement exploded this past fall with women everywhere speaking up against their daily experiences of sexual assault, sexism and unwanted touch, my mind went down a black hole of experiences. We were born into a culture of non-consent.

But there are parents and educators who are acknowledging the importance of children learning about consent and body agency at an early age, and many more who are curious how to go about discussing consent with their children.

Rachel Nemer, the mother of a 4-year-old son, found herself on the end of a surprise conversation about consent a couple of years ago. “When my son was 2 and he was playing with a little girl about a year older than him, they started hugging," she recalls to Romper. "A bit later, the girl’s mother approaches me and says I need to seriously curb my child’s affection and talk to him about consent and appropriateness. She went on, saying that particularly because he is a boy, he needed to know that hugging and affection toward girls was not OK.”

The episode got Nemer wondering whether it was possible to explain to a 2-year-old that, because he was a boy, he had to me more careful, “I wondered how he could be perceived as the aggressor.”

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Cassie Destino, the mother of 2-year-old twins, has been teaching them bodily autonomy by asking permission before she hugs or kisses them, "which is brutal because they usually say no," she says. "We always discuss how only me, daddy, our nanny, and the doctor are the only ones allowed to touch them under their diapers.”

For other parents, formal lessons start in infancy. Harmony Niles, a mother of a 6-year-old, started practicing active consent with her daughter after attending a Hand-in-Hand parenting class when her daughter was still an infant. Niles tells Romper, “I instituted a Don’t-Tickle-the-Baby! rule when my daughter was an infant. Too many people have traumatic memories about being tickled to the point that they felt out of control and helpless.”

Niles' mother felt slighted by this rule, “She thought it was her God-given right to tickle a child until she peed her pants.”

As her daughter grew, Niles helped her to explore tickling and figure out what was enjoyable and fun, and what was not. "I let her guide my hand and asked her questions, like harder or softer? She likes to be stroked lightly across her armpits, and she laughs and screams as I do it. When it’s too intense, she yells 'stop' or 'pause,' and she’ll tell me when she’s ready to continue.”

Each child takes turns saying the following phrases before wrestling: 'I am not trying to hurt you,' and 'I will stop when you say stop.'

Educational programs that teach empowerment and mindfulness are proliferating. Lara Gabato, an early childhood educator for over 17 years, tells Romper, “I wish I had known as a child how powerful my voice could be at an early age. In the past, children were not valued as a member of society and were mostly 'seen and not heard.'"

Gabato is the lead teacher at Children's Community Center (CCC) in Berkeley, California, a co-op preschool that teachers children to "use their 'power voice,' to speak up and advocate for others," and encourages children to ask questions when things sound or feel confusing, Gabato says.

Along with advocating for one another, the preschool teaches consent early on by encouraging the kids to set healthy limits and boundaries.

Gabato explains that at CCC, children (and parents) are taught to ask permission and check-in first before they engage in body contact asking things like, “Do you need a hug?" "May I put a bandaid on your toe?" "Would you like me to rub your back?”

One of Gabato's favorite activities to set up is the "wrestlemania match." In this particular type of physical play, thick mats are laid out and children sign up to wrestle with a classmate. Before the kids begin the wrestling match, they run through some rules. Each child takes turns saying the following phrases before wrestling: "I am not trying to hurt you," and "I will stop when you say stop." Once they finish a match, they turn and face their partner and thank them with a bow or handshake.

“When you think about it, those two phrases should be a universal language for all types of play!” Gabato says.

Scripts like these are important for Cara Kelsey, the mother of a 5-year-old and co-founder of the PEACE Out Loud camp, but she has found that modeling consent and boundaries is just as important as providing scripts. “I have had to examine myself and what creating healthy boundaries looks like. I am the model that she sees everyday. So for me saying, 'No I don’t want snuggles right now,” or 'I’m not going to play with you right now but I will in 15 minutes' is just as important as me teaching her to say those things.”

Kelsey also believes that creating a foundation of confidence and capability in which her daughter feels empowered to say “no”, “yes,” or to ask for help is vital. Kelsey works on creating this by encouraging her daughter to climb trees and play structures.

We need to let go of the idea that we have more power than children simply because we are adults.

The power that authority figures have over children can be a barrier to children speaking up about mistreatment. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network notes that the bulk of sexual assaults are committed by people within the child's "trust circle." Kelsey has worked to counter this by teaching her daughter Aubrey that she as a parent is "fallible," and "makes mistakes. "This makes it easier for her to relate and talk to me because there is not a fear of being wrong or getting in trouble. We are just figuring out how to live together and what feels good to us individually and working together.”

Cara Kelsey's daughter navigates the “peace path” with a friend to resolve a conflict at school. Photo courtesy of Cara Kelsey

The PEACE Out Loud motto is "smash adult supremacy." Kelsey explains, “We need to let go of the idea that we have more power than children simply because we are adults... if we are going to give our children autonomy we need to make room to hear their voices and work from there.”

She tells me that her daughter does not like to shake peoples' hands when she first meets them. “She has learned to say 'No thank you.' It is amazing to me how many people get offended. I completely value the cautiousness in her, it is a gift. I will tell people 'If you want her to like you why don’t you honor her space and find another way to relate.'”

And in some respects, her children's class is ahead of the public discourse. Kelsey’s public school class focuses on emotional intelligence. One of the tools that the class has in place is a peace path that the kids can walk through when they have a conflict so they can practice hearing each other and being heard.

“All the kids come from different families and backgrounds and upbringings and have different ideas about play and consent," Kelsey says. "This is where communication and learning to speak for ourselves and our friends becomes key and the earlier we teach this in life the better.”

These teachers and parents that are dedicated to developing language and skills for our children to navigate through this dense and challenging topic of consent give me hope that our children will cultivate community-based on mutual respect and a sense of agency surrounding their bodies.

The adults in this space are hopeful that their teachings are driving a wider cultural shift. “Teaching children they are powerful is a wonderful thing," Gabato says. "It is a pleasure and privilege to give children the tools and skills they need to navigate this complex world.”

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.