During a recent trip to the park, we encountered a little kid and his mother. He was a couple years older than V; maybe 4.
The interaction started off very cute. He wanted to say hello. I crouched down to her level to see if she would say hi or wave to him. She’s usually more comfortable if I’m close by when we meet new people.
Before we got the “hello” thing mastered, Park Kid came up close and started petting her arm. I wasn’t too surprised about this, as I’ve told my own child to “do nice” (lame-o!) to other people’s bodies. And being a bit older, he seemed to know how to treat a child smaller than himself.
The interaction was quick. Thirty seconds tops. As we were about to say goodbye, I’m pretty sure his mother suggested to him (in a different language, so I’m not positive) that he give V a hug. Park Kid quickly returned to V’s side and began to embrace her.
This is where things got weird. I sensed instantly that V was not comfortable receiving a hug from someone she didn’t know. She just kind of froze and stared at him. I sort of did the same.
It wasn’t until he started awkwardly putting his hands around her neck in a hug attempt that my mama bear instinct surfaced. (To be clear: this kid definitely did not intend to harm to my child. And no, I didn’t think he was going to strangle her.) However, seeing anyone put their hands on our child’s neck in a choke position can wrangle up some strong emotions.
As I reached over to remove his hands from her neck, Park Kid had already scooted away.
The situation did not feel like a dangerous one, but still I felt uncomfortable all afternoon.
V isn’t old enough to tell him to back off. How could I have let this strange kid touch my child? Was she scared? Why did he put his hands around her neck? Why didn’t I jump in sooner? Am I overreacting? (What mother hasn’t asked this last question.)
Then it clicked: even though my toddler doesn’t yet understand how to articulate “please don’t touch me,” she didn’t even have the opportunity to respond; to decide whether or not she wanted a hug.
For all that I’ve studied rape culture and lobbied for affirmative consent to be used as the standard on college campuses, these topics feel premature for age 2. But any child, especially girls, need to feel they have control over their bodies and can say yes or no starting as children and into adulthood.
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HERE ARE 5 WAYS to help your child learn about consent from an early age. Click here for your free printable guide.
1. Give babies authority over their bodies
This one starts at infancy. I’m so glad I read Janet Lansbury’s Elevating Child Care before V was born. I got into the habit of letting V know as a newborn when something was going to happen with her body. Before I picked her up or put her down, I told her. When I was going to change her diaper, I told her. And as we bathed her, we let her know what was happening next. After all, it’s her body.
And now that she’s older, I try to give her options when feasible: do you want to climb up the stairs or do you want me to pick you up?
2. Help toddlers identify emotions early
Some people (including adults) can only identify three emotions: happy, sad, and mad. (I can’t take credit for this gem; thank you, social worker sister.) As adults we are often alarmed when babies and toddlers and children show emotion that makes us uncomfortable. We try to divert them. Quick, look at this shiny toy instead of being upset! But sometimes children need to cry and be upset in order to process a feeling or event.
When my child started using building blocks, sometimes she would feel frustration and chuck them across the room. Instead of just telling her not to throw toys, I wanted to help her identify and work through this emotion. I’d ask are you frustrated? When you’re frustrated you can take a big breath in and out. (Inhaaaaale, ahhhh!) At first she thought the deep breathing was a fun game, but eventually she linked it to events in her life that were frustrating.
A child’s recognition of his or her own feelings is the first step in them communicating those feelings later. My First Emoji Feelings and Monster Faces are awesome ways to teach feelings to tots early.
3. Respect your child’s “no”…. and don’t pout
Many of us have probably read good articles about not forcing children to hug and kiss relatives and friends. This idea resonated with me, even before giving birth. The idea is that instructing a child to engage in physical contact with anyone will make them feel less capable of refusing physical touching in the future, even if it’s unwelcome, to be polite or avoid battles with parents and family.
But beyond that important concept, we must also look inward to see how we, as parents, deal with rejection. This is a big one for me. When my kid shakes her head or says “noooooo!” to hugs or kisses, I can’t sulk or say “awwwww!” Even though that’s how I feel! Instead, I remind myself to say “ok!” lightly and move on. Guilt for lack of affection = bad news.
Luckily, our family and friends have shown tremendous respect for V and her bodily autonomy. If that’s not the case for you, sportscast your observations about your child’s cues. Hmmm.. it looks like Alex is still warming up and isn’t quite ready for a hug right now. Maybe later!
4. Give boundaries to a “lovey-dovey” child
My friend’s school-aged child is very affectionate and loves to hug his friends and classmates. She reminds him repeatedly that not every kid wants him to put his arm around their shoulder. If your child or student is a lovey-dovey type, clue them in that not everyone likes lots of physical contact. And try to help children and students to read those social cues of their peers.
Finally, encourage them to always ask first!
5. Be respectful with other people’s kids
Before becoming a mother, I often sensed that little offspring of friends and family felt shy upon seeing me, no matter how many times we’d hung out. I’d try to offer them an alternative – do you want a high-five? – a less threatening, non-space-invading option.
For more books about body issues, A Mighty Girl has a great list here.