Developing a sense of consent

Sometimes we lose our voice when we need it most. Sometimes, even as adults, it's difficult to speak up when dealing with others we perceive as in positions of power. So how do we give our children their voice? 

These issues are highlighted in the recent and well publicised rape trial in Belfast (as reported in the Irish Times here  on 28.3.18 - reader discretion advised). In the wake of this trial, there has been a lot of conversation and media coverage about how we think about, and how we teach consent.

Initiatives being discussed include consent workshops in third level colleges; and the Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, calling for an overhaul of the Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum at both primary and secondary levels.

But I’m not going to risk waiting around till then. I’m starting on this now. My daughter is only four years old, but like every parent, the idea that she could ever find herself in a position where she was disrespected or treated like this scares me witless. The idea that my son would ever think it's OK to talk about women in a disrespectful way concerns me just as much.

Like every parent, I’m outright biased - I reckon I have the most adorable kids in the world. Those snuggles just before they go off to sleep, or first thing in the morning are the best. But, even as their mother – I try to remember to ask first, or leave them alone if they're at all hesitant. 

Why? Well, have you ever seen a child go shy when asked for a kiss or a hug, and their reluctance to be followed up with something like “Go on - Give your Granny / Aunty a kiss to say thank you for the present”? Or perhaps “Oh, come on – just one tiny little hug? I’ll be all sad if you don’t?” 

If this happens, what we're unintentionally teaching our children is that even if they feel uncomfortable, it’s polite to trade physical affection for favours. We're teaching them that ‘No’ really means ‘Maybe’ when it’s served with a side portion of cajoling or guilt. We're teaching them to override their own tell-tale feelings of discomfort with a situation, and not to trust their own judgement.

Could this be why some children grow up confused about consent?

Could this be why some children grow up thinking that 'no' means 'maybe'?

Could this be why some children grow up feeling obliged to give of themselves in exchange for something?

I want my kids to know it’s OK to say no if they don’t want to be touched by anyone. I want them to know that if someone doesn’t respect that, that it’s OK to repeat themselves - FIRMLY. I want them to know that they have my full permission to get angry, shout, swear and scream blue murder if the person persists, even if it is a grown-up (quite frankly, especially if it’s a grown-up).

I feel that the best way we can protect our kids and let them know their voice counts is not just to tell them what consent is during an SPHE lesson or in college; but also to show them what consent is - right from the start - by practicing, modelling and expecting it at home. I want to support them to learn that ‘No’ means ‘No’, whether you're aged 2 or 22.