Childhood, consent, and learning to be human

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can make me think I deserved it.
Can’t we do better?

What imprints do we receive as children?  When you were five, or six, or seven, what messages really stuck and taught you how people ought to treat each other, how you deserved to be treated, and what options you had for interaction with others?

I know for my part, I was teased a lot as a kid.  I was overly tall, overly smart, and overly quiet.  I was an only child, I moved a lot, and I didn’t get a lot of lessons on how to interact with kids my own age.  When I reported my tortures, I was told to ignore them because “they were just jealous.”  Even at six, I could tell that this was 1. patently untrue, and 2. totally useless to me in salving my pain.

A couple of pieces have crossed my path this week, too, about the power of adults to help kids negotiate consent with one another.  While one piece focused on how rape culture starts young, with the pernicious “boys will be boys” narrative, the other focused on the solution: how do we teach children to ask each other for consent, and to honor that consent?

I think it’s important that teasing and bullying be stopped by adults, and punished.  But I also wonder how much more we could do with teaching kids about how to ask each other permission, even for things they might initially think are definitely going to be a no?  “The ‘overarching attitudinal characteristic‘ of abusive men,” says Kate Elliott in the piece I linked above, “is entitlement.”  How much better might the world be – both for young people and for the adults they will become – if we taught kids to respect each other’s bodies at an early age?

As an illustration of this, I present this adorable story from my friend Kaz, who teaches swimming to kids at MIT.  It makes me wistful: I wonder what my childhood could have been like with a teacher like her, who not only called out bad behavior but sought to teach kids how to deal with each other like the little human beings they are.

Story below, in its entirety.


Ah teachable moments. Today I actually got to educate my kids about what consent is, in a completely non-sexual context. This one little boy, who’s totally the sort who will try to get attention any which way but how, splashed one of his classmates, right in the face.

Me: Hey, buddy, I saw what you did there. That’s hardly friendly. ::to the little girl in question:: You okay?

Little girl: Yeah, but now my eyes sting. (this happened when she had her goggles off)

Me: ::to the little boy:: That really wasn’t nice. Would you please apologize to her?

Little boy:: ::sheepishly cause he totally got caught:: I’m sorry.

Me: Now, that might have been okay if you had just asked her first.

Little boy:: What? ::stunned look on face::

Me: Splashing can be fun. Some people don’t mind being splashed as long as it’s their choice. But you have to ask. It’s called getting consent. It means that the thing you want to do is accepted by the other person, and isn’t a bad surprise. The other person may say, no. If that happens you can’t hassle them about it. You accept their no, but you may still ask other questions. For instance, you may ask if it’s okay to ask again at some other time. Regardless, other person may also say yes. Either way, it’s a good idea to ask. Plus, it can make things more fun.

Little boy: ::mind blown:: Really?

Me: Yup. Here, I’ll show you how it’s done. ::to little girl:: Hey. I really want to splash water in your face. Right now. Can I?

Little girl: No, thank you.

Me: Okay, then I won’t. Maybe some other time?

Little Girl: *giggling* Wait, I want you to ask me again.

Me: Okay. Hey, I’d still really like to splash water in your face. Can I?

Little Girl: Yes. As long as I get to splash back.

Me: Sounds great. Let’s! ::we splash one another and laugh about it::

For frame of reference these kids are around age 7. After I explained, they suddenly got much better about asking one another for consent about all sorts of things. “Hey, I’d like to go first this time (for dives) can I?” So on and so forth. It was kinda of mega awesome. I feel all spiffy.


Published by Kamela Dolinova

Expressive arts adventuress: writing, performing, healing, loving.

26 thoughts on “Childhood, consent, and learning to be human

  1. Seeing this show up on my Facebook feed: not surprising. Seeing it show up from a direction that has *nothing to do with Somerville*: surprising! So hey Kaz, my librarian friends love you now.

  2. How different the world would be if we all learned this way. And, let’s broaden the dialogue to recognize that girls (read also: women. read also: moms) can also act in destructive ways without consent.

    1. Oh, absolutely. I think it’s important to look at the whole picture: as some feminists are fond of saying, patriarchy hurts everyone, and because we’re soaking in it, it’s easy for all of us to get caught up in, and perpetuate, the harmful assumptions and behaviors that characterize it.

  3. This was handled very well. A great teaching moment.

    Had you read an article going around about 3 months ago (via the web), how one lady suggested you should NEVER tell a child to say, “I’m sorry” because that forces them to lie. Many adults never say sorry, she stated.

    I was rubbed wrong by that. Granted, the child may NOT be sorry. I guess you COULD say you teach them to lie. But on the other hand, when would they otherwise learn to tell somebody they are sorry? I have an autistic and developmentally delayed son who is almost 17. He says sorry all the time–even though I know he has no ability to understand the “sorry”. Yet, he has built some good will. He is not aggressive, but might bump into somebody. Or, if I state out loud, “I have a headache”, he says, “I am sorry”. He doesn’t take the blame then, either. Maybe it is just a little white lie? But it still builds good will.

    1. I get what you’re saying here, I think. I don’t like forcing a kid to say they are sorry. I try to always frame it as, a request. “Would you please say, sorry?” Children must be given choices. These often need to gauged for age appropriateness. Still, it’s only via giving them options that I believe they gain the insight, experience, and understanding needed, to develop more of a “moral compass”.

      1. Absolutely. It seems true that early on, kids don’t really *have* a moral compass; it’s something they need to be taught, as morality is largely cultural. Empathy is a tough one, too, early on, which is why the phrase “How would you like it if…” tends to be so useful.

        It may be true that when a little kid is made to say “I’m sorry,” they don’t really mean it – or even know what it means. But I think if you get them in the habit and teach them, having the practice saying it helps them understand it more fully later on.

  4. *blink*
    So I click over to an article on consent on the web someone pointed me to, because that happens a lot with me.

    And then I notice it is by Kamela, and stars Kaz, and um… hi! This was great.


  5. Tiny bit of a problem with the fact that in both boys will be boys and this article the incidents mentioned are about only boys actions towards girls (not boys actions toward boys, girls actions toward boys, girls actions toward girls). Aren’t we trying to get away from those stereotypes and trying to make the point that this is about respect in a universal sense, not just sex…just think about it.

    1. Indeed, Anonymous – stereotypes are the problem. That is, the stereotypical attitudes and behaviors that are modeled for and expected of boys versus girls are problematic, and hurt both women and men.

      It is unfortunately also true, however, that the vast preponderance of abuse victims are female, though of course there are men who are abused by women and by other men. And the vast majority of abuse perpetrators are men, though of course there are women who abuse men and other women. The reason for this, at least in part, is due to the socialization that both men and women receive in this culture. And a big part of that is a lack of teaching consent, respect, and boundaries at an early age.

      Boys, sadly, are much more likely to absorb messages of entitlement – that things and people are theirs to reach out and take – than girls are. Girls, conversely, tend to receive the message – not necessarily from their parents, but from the larger culture – that they are to be nice, quiet, compliant and pleasing. The reason we’re talking about it in this way is because largely, this is what it looks like.

  6. I truly like the story and the outcome of the whole scenario. I work with white, very spoiled and entitled children. They come from middle class families that work in the insurance company that is connected to my childcare center. I believe they represent more of what a suburban entitlement culture is than I have ever worked with. In the teaching scenario above, it were one of the boys I worked with, he would have continued splashing and gotten even more aggressive about it. His response would be to totally ignore what was told to him and the follow up would have been more aggressive behavior and probable pestering the girl who told him to stop. The litany of excuses the boy’s parents would have would fill a page. “Boys will be boys” has been extended to “they are tired”, they have a lot of energy” or “they did not mean it”,-my favorite idiocy statement being- “they are spirited”- and even to the extent of constantly blaming the victim – this is so pervasive that it at times enrages me. White entitlement is rampant in even the youngest of children, especially boys.
    Their parents do not feel any connection to the society at large or any sense of responsibility to what a community needs from its members -and truly does not care. It is about Property, what they own, how they can brandish their entitlement through goods and their children are representative of this overall greed. Consent means you have to be on equal terms and level the playing field and concede that you are equal participants. This is not what happens in most situations. If you are not around children and families of Middle America, go to a shopping mall and just observe for a few hours. Been working with children and families for 36 years and the sense of isolation from others just seems to be growing.

    1. Jackie, I’m so sorry to hear that this has been your experience – though believe me, I know what you’re talking about. One of my first jobs was working at a private summer day camp, and every day I saw the ways that kids got away with things that were appalling, and clearly a reflection of the parents’ attitudes.

      I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by a number of amazing parents with amazing children, though I’ve also seen what happens when a child being “spirited” means that they’re allowed to do whatever they want, because heaven forfend they have their spirit quashed. Of course I agree with this in principle: as a girl who had her spirit thoroughly quashed, I much prefer parenting that encourages exploration, daring, and self-expression. But the best parenting of this variety that I’ve seen also involves very clear boundaries, a strong sense of what “no” means, and consistent application of same.

  7. We use a similar approach with our three children. We have two boys (ages 6 and 1) and a daughter (age 3). All of the kids love to wrestle and rough house (what kid doesn’t!) and I don’t mind it as long as they ask permission first. “Nathan, do you want to wrestle with me?” “Lily, can I try to pick you up?” There are other times, too, but those stand out to me because they’re most common.

    I’d also like to mention that my daughter is the one having the hardest time now. Three year olds are naturally impulsive so she needs a lot of reminders. Right now she is constantly grabbing her little brother (catching him off guard) and pulling him to the floor in a bear hug. He doesn’t like it at all and protests loudly. We’re working on asking, “Alex, can I have a hug?” More often than not, he will toddle over and give her a giant hug. But, on the occasion that he doesn’t, she needs to be OK with that, too. I mention this because of Anonymous’s comment above. Yes, my daughter is only three and yes her actions are with her brothers and not other children, but we speak of the same things around her friends, too. 🙂

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