Consent Around the Holidays: Watching the Messages We Give to Children

by Tori Nevel, intern at WISE, Lebanon, NH 

The holidays are upon us and for some of us that means family reunions and get-togethers with friends. No one wants to be the parent who raised rude children and so we ask our kids to greet distant family members politely with a hug or kiss.

Later down the road when we teach our teens about consent in sexual relationships, expectations from when they were young undermine this lesson. Think about it. We tell our teens that they should always get consent and that it should be an enthusiastic yes, but only a few years before we may have been telling them that they had to kiss grandma or had to endure their aunt’s cheek pinching even if they didn’t want to.

These actions can also have disastrous effects for children who are abused. In 88% of child abuse cases the perpetrator is known to their victim: often a relative, family friend, or babysitter. When we teach children that they must hug or kiss a relative even if they are uncomfortable with it, we invalidate their instincts. Children are taught that they have to do what their elders tell them to do, which makes it scary for them to “tell on” an adult who may be abusing them or making them uncomfortable.

So though we think that we are teaching our children to be respectful when we tell them that they have to kiss Uncle Jack, though we think we are teaching children to be friendly and accept a hug from a friend, though we think we are upholding tradition to make children sit in Santa’s lap, in reality we are teaching them that consent is not important and that adults are in charge of their body.

There are actions we can take and messages we can reinforce to support our kids in establishing a healthy understanding of consent.

Teach children other ways to politely greet people.

There are alternatives to hugs and kisses. Ask your kids if they’d rather give a handshake, wave, high five or blow a kiss and let them know that it’s perfectly okay to do so. Never make a child hug or kiss anyone.

Teach children that “no” means “no.”

The same goes for “stop” means “stop.” If you are tickling your child stop the moment they say, “Stop.” They will let you know if they were having fun and actually want to continue. If your kids are roughhousing and one of them says “stop” make sure that everyone stops and let the kids know that the game is no longer fun unless everyone is having fun. “No” and “stop” are important words and should always be respected.

Lead by example.

Practice asking for permission with your kids, ask them if they want a hug. Have your child practice asking with others as well. Make sure other adults are respecting your child’s responses to hugs and kisses.

Teach children that that hearing “yes” is important.

The concept of affirmative consent is important – that the absence of a ‘no’ doesn’t mean yes. Practice not only asking for hugs or kisses but also waiting to hear a yes before jumping in.

Teach children to read facial expressions and body language.

It is important to tell your kids that even if someone says ‘yes’ to a hug but they’re shying away, it probably means they don’t want a hug.

Teach children to listen and trust themselves if they feel uncomfortable.

Children do have instincts that tell them that a situation may be dangerous and teaching them to trust their “gut feelings” and pay attention to the way their bodies feel are protective strategies. Constantly violating a child’s comfort zone to have them kiss a relative may teach kids that they should let anyone into uncomfortable spaces and that they aren’t allowed to say no.

Teach children that their bodies belong to them.

Of course allowing your child to wear shorts to school in the middle of winter may be out of the question, but allow your children to have options about what they can do with their body to a certain extent. Teach them that they are in charge of their body. If your child shies away from a hug or kiss, don’t force it on them. If it bothers you, have a conversation with them to see why.

Teach children that they can talk about their body without shame.

When we give kids permission to talk about what feels good and what doesn’t feel good, we allow them to explore their own boundaries and their own comfort zones.

Teach children self-esteem and to be proud of their bodies.

A study found that girls as young as five have routinely worried about their body image while by the age of 14 about half of girls and a third of boys have tried dieting. Lead by example and don’t constantly focus on how you and others look. Talk about people’s attitudes, accomplishments, intelligence and all of the amazing things our bodies can do.