The national conversation about consent is ongoing, with a steady stream of stories about sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood, politics and the media. The #MeToo movement continues as more stories have emerged, and nearly every industry has been affected.
When it comes to children, the emphasis has primarily been on consent between them and adults. The Girls Scouts of America recently reminded parents that it’s okay for kids to refuse a hug or kiss from a family member. Conversations about consent and the right to say no to adults are important, but when the affection is coming from another child, too often it’s seen as adorable, and something that should be encouraged. If we want our children to learn about consent and hope to teach them to respect others’ body autonomy, though, it’s important that they know that not all affection, however well-intentioned, is welcome. We use the words good touch and bad touch, but it’s easy to forget to emphasize that even a good touch can become bad if it’s unwanted.
Part of the issue is affection is good and important for healthy child development. “You don’t want to extinguish the affection that children show, but you do want to set appropriate limits,” says Eric Lindsey, associate professor of applied psychology at Pennsylvania State University-Berks Campus, who teaches applied developmental psychology and well-being and adjustment. “Everyone is responsible for their own body, has a right to say no and not have behavior forced on them.”
It’s easy to tell a toddler no, but not always easy to get them to listen. According to Lindsey, the word no starts being effective between 12 and 18 months. “We know that from a very early age, children can imitate, children can pick up on the emotional cues of others. The problem comes in using that information, and they’re really not good about using that information until around 3,” he says. “Three is when they start to get better at it, and even then they’re not that good.”
Nancy Popson teaches 3-year-olds at Aspen Hill Cooperative Nursery School in Rockville, Md. She says as long as the affection shown by a child is mutual, she welcomes it, but she also actively encourages children to use words to tell their classmates what they want or need.
“If a child is uncomfortable with the affection from a classmate and is unsure what to say, I model some polite ways to decline affection, like ‘No thank you,’ ‘I don’t want to hug right now,’ or ‘I don’t feel like holding hands now,’ ” she says. “If the unwanted touch continues, a more forceful ‘No’ or ‘I don’t like that” is warranted. I am ready to help should the child feel they are still not being heard.”
Parental involvement and modeling behavior is key, says sexologist and sexuality expert Logan Levkoff. “This is one of those subjects where you cannot have a double standard,” she says. She suggests parents build a foundation of consent by respecting their children’s desires about affection, whether it comes from mom or dad, other adults, or other kids. When children get mixed messages, she says, it’s no surprise that they grow up to not respect boundaries. This is especially true for what Levkoff calls “affection aggressors,” children who hug and kiss their peers without noticing or paying attention to whether that affection is unwanted.
Katherine Martinelli’s older son is an affection aggressor, frequently hugging other kids a little too long or too hard, sometimes even knocking them over. “I’m a big believer in letting kids try to work out minor conflicts on their own,” she says, “but when I see my son going in for those big hugs I always intervene.” She talks about consent with both of her sons, ages 3½ and 10 months, frequently — in terms of both giving and receiving — and reinforces the idea that when someone says no, it’s important to stop.
In her classroom, Popson encourages children to ask for permission, both with words and gestures — offering a hand to hold or opening arms for a hug — but she also teaches kids how to handle it when their affection is rejected. “I think it is important that she understand that just because her friend would rather not be hugged or touched, it does not necessarily mean that she is not loved. I encourage her to show her love in other ways, such as telling her friend how she feels with words, drawing a picture for her friend, playing a favorite game with her friend.”
Helping children learn healthy ways to express affection is important, but Lindsey cautions that parents shouldn’t take it too far. “Romantic and sexual behavior in children is just not the same as in adults. It’s largely due to curiosity and wanting to try things out that they’ve seen.” According to Lindsey, children should be able to recognize and react to verbal and nonverbal cues about affection by age 5 or 6, and parents should be concerned if the behavior persists beyond that age.
As my daughter has gotten older, she has become more open to affection and better able to vocalize her feelings. At 4½, she’s quick to speak up when she doesn’t want her friend holding her hand or when she’d like her 2-year-old brother to stop hugging her. I’ve tried to advocate for her, offering words to help her express her feelings and stepping in when necessary. I want her to know it’s okay for her to say no now, so she feels empowered to say no as she gets older and the stakes are higher.
I also feel challenged with my son, who at 2 is very loving, but doesn’t understand that we can’t fix everything with a hug and a kiss, especially when the problem is that hug or kiss. Martinelli articulated that challenge well, saying that as the mother of two boys, she feels a lot of pressure to raise them to be decent men. To that end, she remembers “consent is something that needs to be reinforced time and again, even from a young age.” By reminding children to ask first, stepping in when they forget, encouraging them to speak up when they’re uncomfortable and having potentially awkward conversations with other parents on their behalf, parents can teach kids that consent matters, even when affection comes from a place of love.
Shana Westlake is a freelance writer based in Rockville, Md. Find her on Twitter @Shana Westlake.