I want to carefully tiptoe up to this subject for several reasons, one being that it can be a triggering topic for adults. It can bring up a myriad of complicated or possibly painful memories and feelings, and raise what might feel like unanswerable questions. Adults can also misconstrue the meaning as sexual in nature, when really it has to do with things like body autonomy, body positivity, self-advocacy, and empathy. However, unpacking our uncomfortable or challenging notions regarding consent is absolutely vital to raising conscientious, accountable and empathetic children and furthering a culture that is less tolerant of abuse and exploitation.
Children receive messages about themselves and their bodies from birth and are very attuned to the people caring for them. When my daughter was born I found out about the RIE philosophy which is intended to be applied to children from birth to age 2, and it simultaneously opened my eyes and resonated deeply with me. It is a philosophy based on respect and seeing children as whole, capable beings from birth. One of the basic principles has to do with involving even the youngest babies in every aspect of their care (feeding, bathing, changing etc.) This means talking with them about the things that you are going to do to them BEFORE doing them. For instance, when changing a baby’s diaper you would tell them “You need a diaper change, I am going to pick you up” rather than just scooping them up without warning. You would narrate for them each thing that will happen so they hear about and learn to anticipate what comes next. Once laid down you would continue with “I’m going to unzip your pajamas now, and lift your legs” etc. Even very young babies are capable of communicating their needs and by respecting their bodies in this way from the very start a wonderful and loving bond forms and lays the groundwork for future relationships. I’ve known people who scoff at this practice (which says a lot about how they perceive babies) or say things like “that takes too much time,” but this is what a respectful interaction with a baby looks like. It also carries the benefit of promoting language development, connection, and increased cooperation as they develop more motor skills. Think about the message that is being sent to this tiny baby too, that their personhood is not something to be earned at a later time…maybe once they start walking and talking…they are worthy of respect, communication and consideration NOW. Powerful stuff.
There are many nuances to learn about when looking into RIE but one of the most substantial and valuable is the concept of what is being communicated to the child whether it be directly or indirectly. Take something seemingly innocent like tickling or hugging, most adults do not ask to do these things to children (complete strangers consistently approach my 1 year old son in stores and attempt to squeeze, tickle, or touch him) and even if they did and the answer is “no” they might resort to guilting or even shaming the child. What message does this send to young children? How can we rewrite this cultural narrative when it seems so deeply ingrained?
It takes a real frameshift to see children as capable of being “in charge” of their bodies (obviously not when safety is a concern, our adult obligation supersedes their autonomy in that instance) but it is such a necessary shift if we hold the expectation that our children will respect others. Simply put, children learn how to do this by having it modeled for and with them. At this age they still need guidance, coaching, intervention and lots of developmentally appropriate conversations about consent but the most impactful way to teach it to them is by making sure you are modeling it yourself, with them and with others.
In our school setting you will hear teachers ask “are you okay with that?” while children are playing. It is our way of checking in with them when we sense that a boundary is about to be crossed, or sometimes after the fact. It is the language we use to communicate to both parties that there is a line…and we are there to acknowledge and facilitate communication about that line. Our work is to allow space for those conversations, to give those interactions a forum to play out in a way where each person feels heard. Some lines are hard, some are softer, some have to do with feelings, others with bodies and contact or material things…and each child draws their own lines where they need them to be, they are actively learning about where their own lines are. It’s a huge part of our curriculum actually. Figuring out how to be together, share the same materials and space, get our individual needs met, collectively carve out the needs of the group, and communicate as effectively as we can…all the while with consent at the forefront of gaining new understanding about ourselves and others.