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.