Consent – not just for teenagers
A few years ago, I was involved in writing some teaching materials on the theme of consent. It was a useful resource and well suited to the target age group but was very much aimed at teenagers; now, that’s fine if the issue of consent started and ended there. It doesn’t. Consent is an essential concept that needs to be explicitly taught to even the very youngest of children because when we are talking about consent, we’re not just talking about sex, we’re talking about permission and this is relevant at all ages.
I believe that teaching about consent is a natural part of teaching respect; respect for oneself, body and mind, and respect for others. Consent is the start of learning about healthy relationships. With very young children, I’ve found that teaching about ‘Positive Touch’ provides a perfect climate for teaching about consent. Positive touch is the respectful laying of hands on another person with permission. From a very young age, children are taught to use their hands carefully or gently when they are carrying out a task or when they are touching another person. Positive touch is a reinforcement of how we can use our hands to interact with others in a way that is respectful, comfortable and as a way to strengthen healthy relationships.
Permission is a key feature of positive touch. Young children are often very natural in their desire to make contact with others; their understanding of personal boundaries is typically underdeveloped or non-existent. While we don’t want to discourage this very innocent and natural display of affection, it is helpful to remind children of the value of seeking consent, of offering before landing a bear hug, or kiss on an un-expecting recipient, especially when the attention isn’t appreciated by said recipient.
Assertiveness is another key feature. Children are encouraged to express their preferences about how they want to be touched, or indeed if they want to be touched at all. Expressing their thoughts and feelings confidently and openly allows both children in the relationship to understand how best to make contact with one another.
Respect is woven throughout positive touch. Respecting oneself is central to being able to show respect for others. By reflecting on what an individual feels comfortable with, he or she is better placed to empathise with what feels right for a working partner and the promotion of quality communication further supports the respectful behaviour.
Through a series of games and stories, the children learn about how to touch people in different ways but always appropriately, respectfully, comfortably and with permission. The activities generally involve ‘drawing’ on a partner’s back or connecting games much like you might use in gymnastics. A more formal routine could include massage like techniques being used on the back, shoulders, arms and hands, depending on the preferences of the children and what level of contact they are happy with.
I feel that this is such an important safeguarding theme for schools to explore. To establish such positive behaviours at an early stage with regular reinforcement would help to promote a culture that doesn’t see ever increasing numbers of children and teenagers being subjected to unwanted sexual touching in schools, or indeed in the workplace. At a recent training session, we discussed this very subject and it was clear that a number of us had tolerated such touching; it was like a sad acceptance that somehow women should just have to endure inappropriate behaviour. We shouldn’t. No person should feel that they are expected to tolerate inappropriate touch from anyone. Nobody should feel that they ought to go along with anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or vulnerable because they don’t want to make a fuss, or because they feel embarrassed, or feel they might be labelled or for fear of hurting the other person’s feelings.
Consent is an active process, not a one off permission granting free access thereafter. Everybody needs to be taught that they have no right to touch another person without their permission. I’d like to see such teaching happen before behaviours and attitudes have already been shaped. Teaching about consent, it’s not just for teenagers.
If you are interested in a training session on the theme of positive touch then please contact me Kelly@learnhappy.org.uk