How often have you encouraged your child to hug an auntie or uncle, or told them off for being rude if they refuse?
Bracing myself to kiss the crepe-skinned cheek of an elderly relative is just part and parcel of my perfectly ordinary childhood memories – and the childhood memories of countless other parents like me.
But just because it was normal for us, doesn’t mean it should be normal for our own kids.
“Unknowingly we feed our kids the idea that their consent is not important by forcing them to hug or kiss every random relative they meet,” says Kinshoo Agrawal, a Dubai-based Indian mum whose blogs on parenting issues at Momlearningwithbaby,com.
“We need to make them realise that they can say ‘no’ when they don’t want to and it’s not an obligation. Likewise they should respect when someone says ‘no’ and understand that they should not take it personally.”
A wake-up call
Greater awareness of body autonomy, consent and the dangers of child predators through modern movements such as #Metoo has highlighted that the way most of us as parents were taught about these topics in childhood needs to change.
“The explosion of the #Metoo movement is enough evidence that we need to actively start teaching consent to our children,” says Rafia Amber, an Early Intervention Specialist who works with children with additional challenges. “And not when they hit puberty, but as early as two years of age.”
Before they even learn to speak, children are learning by observing and copying all that is happening in their environment, says Amber. “It is essential that we ‘model’ consent by practicing it with our spouses, friends, and other children around them, so they begin to understand what ‘consent’ looks like.”
For Kinshoo realising that a lot of what we do as parents to protect the feelings of others is actually ignoring the feelings of our children was a big wake-up call. “We expect our children to respect their elders and oblige their wishes, yet we fail to acknowledge that if the child is uncomfortable hugging someone, he shouldn't be forced to,” she says. “If a child is constantly taught that he is obliged to follow what others ask him to do, he won't be able to recognize red flags in future.”
If a child is constantly taught that he is obliged to follow what others ask him to do, he won't be able to recognize red flags in future.
Equipping kids with knowledge
As her six-year-old son got older and started to spend more time in the care of adults other than herself, Kinshoo started to think about his safety and wanted to equip him with the knowledge to keep him as safe as possible. She enrolled in courses on Children’s Rights and other parenting topics to arm herself with the wisdom to teach him. “According to statistics, abusers are often people whom the child already knows and trusts,” she says. “Sometimes the child might even fail to notice that she is being molested or abused because her parents have told her to hug this person and obey them.”
Kinshoo posted an awareness video on the topic on Instagram, which received hundreds of comments from concerned UAE parents who also felt strongly about the issue. “I want all parents to understand that a child should never be pushed to hug, kiss, touch or show affection to anyone if the child is not uncomfortable,” she says. “The child must know that she or he has the right to say ‘No’. Parents should trust their children's instincts and allow them to express it. But consent works both ways. So the child requires to be mentally prepared to take a "No" from the other person as well.”
Getting comfortable with awkwardness
Empowering children to say ‘No’ might sound simple, but it goes against the impulse to be polite that most of us have been culturally engrained with. “I have ended up upsetting a close friend who wanted to cuddle my toddler, but he was not very happy about it and so resisted the hug,” says Kinshoo. “I immediately took him away from her arms and I could sense she felt bit insulted.”
But sometimes social niceties have to be sacrificed for a much more important purpose. “I couldn't compel my son just to please my friend,” says Kinshoo. “This 'one forceful hug' could have set a wrong example for him. Often we adults find it very difficult to handle rejection ourselves and we believe kids are just supposed to accept and do whatever they are told to. I say: no. Give respect if you expect to be respected. We don't want to raise frustrated adults with low self-esteem who are coerced to believe that their consent doesn't matter.”
It can also feel awkward for parents to broach the consent conversation at all. It’s an uncomfortable topic to raise, and is often connected to a sense of embarrassment or shame about the body and sexuality that parents may have internalized themselves. “But shame is the mechanism that perpetrators of sexual violence rely upon to keep victims silent,” Bonnie J Rough, author of ‘Beyond Birds and Bees’ told the New York Times.
If you don’t speak to your child about consent and body autonomy, someone else will, points out Christine Kritzas. Counselling Psychologist, Creator of Smart Heart Board Game & Education Director at The LightHouse Arabia. “As parents, you have a responsibility to provide your children with the facts around consent and body safety. If you don’t have these conversations with them, they will get to learn about it on the playground or via social media. Furthermore, they will hear about it from sources which don’t necessarily hold the same values as you.”
As parents, you have a responsibility to provide your children with the facts around consent and body safety
Different types of ‘Nos’
As any parent will anticipate, the flipside of empowering children with the power of saying ‘no’ is that they might not always wield that power reasonably. This is where parents can use their judgement as the adults in the situation. “There are different types of no’s, and various ways of handling each kind,” says Dr Rose Logan, a Dubai-based clinical psychologist. “Just to be clear, we’re not talking about kids saying no to everyday must-do’s – like brushing their teeth or bathing. While all no’s should be respected, you don’t have to agree with all of them. Your child exerting his or her right to preference is fine if it is something that won’t harm them or have longer-term or widespread consequences.”
Rafia Amber clarifies further: “Please remember, children only get a choice in situations that don’t involve any health or safety hazards. Sitting in a car seat, going for a vaccination, adhering to their bedtime, or refusing to wear a jacket when it’s two degrees outside would be some of the examples.”
Ultimately, it’s all part of arming our children with the self-respect and boundaries to prepare them for the world. “The reports of crimes against children is heart wrenching and every parent lives on edge all the time,” says Kinshoo. “I request all parents to teach their kids – from self-defence and survival skills, to how to recognize predators and of course a plan of action in emergency situations.”
DO inform your kids before you touch them (e.g. nappy change/hug/kiss) and set appropriate expectations around this (i.e. “Mum and Dad will change your nappy when it’s not clean. You can also tell us when you want it changed.”).
DON’T force them to greet others with a hug or a kiss.
DO teach them that “no” and “stop” are decisive answers. Model this to them when they nag for something which you have already said no to.
DON’T go back on your word. This may lead to them thinking that “no” could mean “yes” is they push their limits.
DO teach kids to notice when someone is in trouble and stand up to them (model the behaviour)
DON’T let them think that being a bystander to inappropriate conduct is okay.
DO teach kids to read body language and facial expression. Acknowledge when they try to set a boundary around physical space.
DON’T ignore their requests not to be touched.
DO give children choices to say yes or no from a young age. Acknowledge their responses.
DON’T enforce decisions (give choice within the appropriate guidelines)
DO talk about consent using relevant examples for their age
DON’T rely on the school to teach your child about consent
WHAT PARENTS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT TEACHING KIDS CONSENT
Teaching children about consent is the modern form of the ‘Birds and Bees’ talk. It’s awkward and a bit embarrassing, but parents have a duty to their children to equip them with this knowledge. Christine Kritzas. Counselling Psychologist, Creator of Smart Heart Board Game & Education Director at The LightHouse Arabia shares her thoughts on the importance of teaching kids about consent.
Why is it important to teach consent to our children?
Parents often wait until their children ask them about sex because they don’t want to ‘plant a seed’ or ‘give them any ideas’ but this has been proven to be a common myth. Children who are not educated around the topics of body safety and consent are in fact more vulnerable and at higher risk of falling prey to predators out there.
Children need to know from the word go about their rights when it comes to their own bodies and how to protect themselves. It is important to start with the basics, such as how no one should be touching them without their permission.
What is the right age to bring it up?
Even though your family may have very clear values, and be surrounded by a community where values are held very high, your children may still be exposed to others’ viewpoints on body safety and you will need to equip them with information in order to be prepared for any eventuality.
As with self-defense, we teach our children techniques to protect themselves ‘in case they have to use them’. If our children find themselves in life-threatening or difficult situations, they will know how to defend themselves. The same principal then applies to consent and body safety – parents need to be proactive about equipping children with the necessary information if they are ever put into an uncomfortable situation where they need to protect themselves from sexual predators.
Children can already be taught about body safety before 2 years of age, before the time that they are verbal. This can be introduced during bath time where they are taught the names of their private parts, just as they are taught body parts such as “knees” and “toes”. The earlier parents start having these conversations, the less awkward it will be for both parent and child.
How has the pandemic affected the issue of consent?
While greeting people with a hand-shake or a hug is socially acceptable in certain cultures, it has been deemed inappropriate conduct during the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has affected how we manage our social interactions, which in turn has impacted the issue of consent. Children, now more than ever, have been primed to respect other’s physical space (even as far as standing 2meters apart from their peers at school). Therefore, in light of a pandemic, children and adults have even more leverage when it comes to others’ respecting their personal space.
How can parents teach kids about consent without scaring them?
- Multiple conversations are key: it is important to highlight that parents should be having multiple conversations with their children about this, not only one. As we know, children learn through repetition and the more you speak to them about these topics, the more likely they will stick.
- Take on a non-judgmental position of curiosity: it is important to adopt a stance of curiosity and openness in order to be approachable and make your children feel comfortable speaking with you about these difficult topics. Give your children the message that you are always available to have these conversations if and when necessary.
- Infuse your conversations with values: parents have the opportunity to have these conversations anchored in their own values, so that the first bit of information their children are receiving is values-based information.
- Have the conversation when both parent and child have sufficient time available. Difficult conversations should never feel rushed. Factor in time for your child to ask questions too.
How can parents first bring up the consent conversation?
When initiating difficult conversations with your child, there are a few factors to take into account when planning your approach:
- Where: make sure that the conversation takes place in a space which supports having such a conversation and where you are unlikely to be interrupted by someone (e.g. going for a walk together; in your child’s room; on a long drive somewhere).
- Face-to-Face: make sure to have the conversation in person, avoid doing so over What’s App or Messenger. By having the conversation in person, you are allowing your child to get a sense of your tone (which is caring, genuine and firm). This will prevent any miscommunication from occurring and you will be able to read how much information your child is absorbing and whether they are comfortable with having this conversation in the first place.
- Acknowledge the awkwardness: preface your conversation with: “I understand that this is an awkward conversation to be having and that it makes you feel uncomfortable, but the truth is, we need to speak about these things...”.
- Stance: adopt a stance of openness and curiosity when speaking with your child. Be open to hearing their points of view too.
- Allow space for circling back: often these conversations may need to be continued and it is important to be able to check-in with your child afterwards (e.g. “We had quite a heated conversation yesterday, and I understand that this is a difficult topic for you, but I want you to know that I am always here to hear your concerns or thoughts about this”).
- Use Smart Heart Board Game: As a tool for building a stronger bond with your children by creating a safe place to have conversations about their emotional and social world, and their likes and dislikes. It provides parents with a tool to have more meaningful conversations with their kids and to learn about their experiences on the playground, in the classroom, on the sports field, on play dates and other contexts. It provides images and questions which may help to evoke conversations about sensitive and important topics which would otherwise go unaddressed. Smart Heart Board Game is available for purchase from The LightHouse Arabia or through the website: www.smartheartboardgame.com.
What pitfalls should parents be aware of when talking about consent?
- Focus on your language used: refrain from using language such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ touching as this will make a child feel ashamed if someone has touched them inappropriately. Rather speak to your child about ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ touching and explain that nobody should touch their private parts without their permission. To be clear about what their private parts are, you can say to your child: “nobody should touch you on the parts covered by your bathing suit, neither should you touch anybody on the parts covered by their bathing suit”.
- Avoid using threats: children should feel comfortable to speak with you about such topics so it is important to refrain from threatening or frightening them with statements such as: “if that ever happens to you, I won’t let you go out with your friends again!”.
- Refrain from becoming emotional: try remain calm when having such conversations and communicate your message in a caring yet firm manner. Check-in with yourself before you have that difficult conversation with your child to make sure that you are feeling grounded and ready to deal with their possible resistance to the topic at hand. Be sure of your stance when it comes to these topics and clarify it with your spouse if need be, to ensure that you are both on the same page when it comes to your family values.
But there are some strategies that we can take to make children aware of appropriate behaviour and to foster healthy communication between our children and ourselves. Dr Rose Logan, clinical psychologist in Dubai, shares her advice:
TEACH THEM ABOUT PHYSICAL BOUNDARIES...
Often with younger children it is about helping them to understand the physical boundaries of interpersonal situations first. For example, it is not OK for anyone to hit you or to touch you in certain parts of your body and if someone asks to do that or to see parts of your body, it is absolutely fine to say no and tell someone about it. It is also helping them to understand what is OK for them to do to others and that each person has the right to decide what happens to their body.
DON’T USE EUPHEMISMS...
Euphemisms and nicknames can muddy the water of children’s understanding. They may sound cute and save our sensibilities as parents, but talk straight with your children. Let them know what body parts are really called and that they are private. There are some great charity campaigns out there that can help you do this if you are unsure. For example, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’s (NSPCC) “Pants campaign”.
TALK TO THEM ABOUT STRANGER DANGER EARLY ON...
Talking to children about stranger danger can start early as long as it is done with age and the child’s stage of language development in mind. Remember not all children’s language develops at the same rate. You can start with toddlers by talking about the people they know and who love them and care for them, and differentiating them from other people who they don’t know. As children get a bit older, around pre-school, and their understanding of language develops, you can begin to talk about safety and set some guidelines for staying safe without creating fear. For example, it is important that you can see me and I can see you when we are the playground, just in case you need any help. As they start school and they begin spending more time away from you and their other caregivers, it is important to start letting them know about what is appropriate to expect from those around them and about what the boundaries are.
ENCOURAGE OPEN COMMUNICATION…
We can be guilty of trying to push our children to tell us everything about their day but many times this is met with “Good”, “Fine”, “Stop asking me questions”!! It can be helpful to ask more specific questions about what was really good about the day or what didn’t go so well. “Did anyone feel sad today at school or need some help?” “Did anyone say something funny that made you laugh?” “What was your favourite part of the day today?”
You can also try talking about your child’s day at different times if they are tired after school. And make sure you both have the time to sit together and not rush. Always letting your child know that they can speak to you at any time if they want to means that they feel free to talk on their own terms, which can be more comfortable. If you are concerned that your child is not telling you everything, you should speak to the people in charge of their care through the day and try and speak to a few to get a picture of the whole day.
USE AGE-APPROPRIATE EXAMPLES...
It can be hard to get the balance between letting your children know that not all people have their best intentions at heart whilst not scaring them. I think that giving them information that matches their developmental stage is the best way, and using familiar examples to illustrate this can make it more accessible. For example, Peter Rabbit wandering off alone and getting stuck in Mr McGregor’s garden might be a good way to let a younger child understand that it is not a good idea to wander off alone. Children pick things up and hear news, especially as they get older, and being straightforward and honest might seem difficult but it is better than leaving them confused or with their own unexplained fears. You can also let them know that most people are good and how to seek help safely when they need it.
MAKE SURE YOU ARE COMFORTABLE WITH WHAT YOU ALLOW...
When your child is asking to go on sleepovers for example, it can be a tricky decision and ultimately, as the parent, you have to do what is right for your family. Don't feel peer pressure, and you must be comfortable that the sleepover is in safe place and is being monitored by a parent that you know and trust. Having the nanny or babysitter watch the sleepover does not count.
KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE...
We cannot control every moment of our child’s day. And so the most important task we have as parents, is to equip them with the tools and the confidence to speak up when they need to and to solve problems when they arise. Teaching them how to speak to adults and to be assertive and not always talking for them, is a simple but powerful step to build their confidence. Making sure that you share time with them each day just being together will pave the way for comfortable conversations and discussions and you can talk about things that have happened that day or even hypothetical scenarios. Books and stories are also a rich source of discussion and you can use characters and story lines to discuss the skills and actions that you would like them to foster.