Let’s Talk About Consent

Classmates chatting

By Curley Newgent

Abuser. Perpetrator. Maltreater. We often think of an adult when we hear these words. When we hear “child sexual abuse” we usually imagine a stranger, a creepy predator, or a pedophile. However, most abuse is perpetrated by average people – adults and children alike. This is an uncomfortable thought; nobody likes to think their children are in danger on a day-to-day basis. But it also means we have to consider how we, or our own children, could be perpetrators, and not the scary stranger that is easier to consider.

While we are slowly getting better at teaching children that they have a right to say no, that their body is private, and they get to be in control of who enters their personal space, we also need to get better at teaching children and young people how to hear no. If the children we know and love could be hurting other children, it is our responsibility as adults to teach them how to treat each other and stand up for each other.

Throughout a young person’s development, we should be building the concept of consent into all of our interactions with them. They should learn to expect that we respect their personal space, and that we have the same expectation of them.

Teach children that everyone has the right to their own body and personal space: we may not touch each other without consent, and we must practice reading each other’s body language to gauge how comfortable our friends are with our behavior. There are developmentally appropriate ways to do this with children of all ages.

For infants, you can begin by narrating how you are interacting with them – “I am washing your body now, so that you will be clean and safe.” Children need to learn that they can expect an explanation (parents, doctors, and caregivers touch your body to keep you safe, healthy, and clean) about why someone may need to touch them.

As soon as young children are in control of their own body movements, we should begin to expect that they listen to other people’s boundaries, just like other people listen to theirs. That means as adults we stop tickling a child when the child says to stop, and it means that we expect our toddlers to not use adults as a jungle gym if the adult says no thanks.

As children get older, it is appropriate to talk more explicitly about consent and bodies. By the time children are in elementary school, consent can be a word they know and use in an everyday manner. By the time they are in middle school, young people should have a sense of the harm that they can do when they ignore their friends’ consent. It is appropriate to talk about hurting each other’s feelings, how they feel when their boundaries or wants are ignored, and how hard it can be to feel comfortable when our friends don’t treat us the way we want to be treated. It is important that we begin to differentiate between “treating people the way you want to be treated” and “treating someone the way they want to be treated.”

By late middle school/early high school, young people should have an explicit sense of sexual assault and the harm that comes when we don’t respect each other’s physical or emotional boundaries.

Of course, each family and caregiver must learn how to incorporate consent language into their own culture. Whether that’s about how we treat each other, how we take care of our siblings, or about how we stay safe, it has to be an authentic and consistent part of a child’s day-to-day learning experience, or they will not be able to internalize these skills.

Building consent into young people’s day-to-day is a protective factor for each young person – the more they know about their rights, the more likely they are to understand when someone (adult or child) is trying to cross their boundaries, and the less likely they are to cross someone else’s boundaries.

Curley Newgent is a Training Associate in BCAC’s Community Outreach and Education department.

Keep Kids Safe This Summer

Children playing Football

By Alison D’Alessandro

Summer is around the corner and it is a wonderful time for children to play, explore, and just be kids. Children will be visiting extended family, going to their friends’ houses, swimming at the pool, playing at the playground, and doing many other fun and exciting things. With the change in routine and being around more people, it is important to remember some basic tips to keep your children safe.

Talk about Body Safety
Teaching children the proper names for their private body parts will help them communicate with you if they should ever have a question related to illness, hygiene or abuse. Talking with children calmly and matter-of-factly about body parts demonstrates that these parts are good and special and that you as the parent feel comfortable talking about these parts. The most natural time to teach children this language is when they are toddlers and are learning the names for the other parts of their bodies.

Teach and Model Healthy Relationships
Teach and model characteristics of healthy relationships including empathy, expressed feelings, equality, fairness, respect, and boundaries. When children learn what is healthy, they are more likely to recognize and question unhealthy behaviors. Encourage your child to come to you and other helpful, healthy adults with questions about bodies and touch. Also, review your family’s values and rules for both at home and when you are not around. It is important to know that most abuse is at the hands of someone who has gained the trust of a victim and their family and is someone the child know, loves, or trusts. It is critical that children have a strong understanding of healthy relationships. Also, children must be empowered to listen to their instincts.

Teach Your Child that They are the Boss of their Body
Respect your child’s decision to protect their body and space. Their body is theirs, so respect their “no” and teach others that your child is not being rude, but rather establishing their boundaries. An offender won’t typically immediately start touching body parts that a bathing suit covers but instead will slowly try to groom a child and their parents and caregivers through other more “normal” touches. Do not use the term “good touch, bad touch.” We are all sexual beings and sometimes “bad” touches feel good. Instead, teach your kids to be the boss of their body and that they should tell you anytime something feels weird or uncomfortable. Role-play to help kids get comfortable using their words to set boundaries and let them know to set boundaries with other children as well as adults. Help children understand their physical, emotional, and behavioral boundaries.

Tell Your Child that Secrets are Not Okay
Adults and other children should never ask a child to keep a secret about touch. Tell your children that there are no secrets kept in your family, and no one should ever ask them to keep a secret. Talk about surprises instead – how we surprise people with gifts and presents on their birthday or planning a party. The difference is that surprises are always shared with others and secrets are not. Help your child to understand what they can do if someone asks them to keep a secret.

Watch for “Red Flags” with Other Adults and Children
Make sure that all interactions with others are observable, interruptible, and appropriate. Offenders operate by access, privacy, and control. If our child must be alone with an adult for lessons or camp or babysitting, check in occasionally or show up at an unexpected time, just to be sure everything is okay. Trust your instincts and remove your child from a situation if you feel uncomfortable. Listen to your child if they tell you something is wrong and observe their interactions with the person. Be aware of red flags such as an adult treating your child as a peer, using inappropriate language or inappropriate touch, not respecting your child’s privacy, allowing or encouraging illegal activities, treating your child as a favorite, or engaging inappropriately or excessively on social media.

Talk and Talk and Talk Some More
Remember abuse is never the child’s fault. Help your child understand that they will not get in trouble if they tell you about a touching secret, and that it is never too late to tell. Empathize with your child that while it is always ok to say “no” to any kind of touch, this can be very hard to do. Create an environment in your home where children feel comfortable sharing information and asking tough questions without being judged. Listen carefully. Nurture an understanding of healthy relationships in your child. Demonstrate the importance of sharing feelings. Evidence suggests that children are more likely to disclose abuse when a parent or loved one initiates a conversation about sexuality or abuse. Learn and exchange current information with your friends and neighbors regarding child sexual abuse so that you will be better able to protect your child. Ongoing communication with our children can help to nurture qualities within them that render them less likely to be targets of abuse. Good communication ensures that when something is difficult or something goes wrong, family and community are there to help.

Finally, it is imperative that all incidents of inappropriate behavior of an adult with a minor be reported to the appropriate person and/or civil authorities. Not all incidents are abuse, but reporting can let the person know that their behavior is unacceptable and that it is being monitored. This gives the person the opportunity to change their behavior. If child abuse is suspected, it must be reported to the appropriate civil authorities immediately as required by Maryland law, regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred.

We must all work together to protect our children and to help them have happy childhoods and develop into strong and healthy adults.

Alison D’Alessandro is BCAC’s Senior Policy & Program Specialist. Alison has a Master’s degree in Organizational Development and Human Resources from Johns Hopkins University.  She educates youth-serving professionals throughout the Baltimore area on creating safe environments and child abuse awareness.