Consent has become a grand scale issue in 2016 and it has mostly centralized around sex and educating young men about the rightsof women to decide what happens with their bodies. It has become one of the more powerful modern messages in the rights of women and gender equality and we are now beginning to see the conversation extending to early childhood and how we as teachers and parents can promote the importance of children having the ability and right to decide what happens with their bodies and that having the choice of refusing as little as a hug can have a significant impact on how a child prioritizes consent later on in life.
But up until now the framing of the conversation has focused mostly on acts of a physical nature - hugging, kissing, touching etc. Without really expanding the scope of consent and our roles as teachers and parents in role-modeling appropriate practices when it comes to offering choice, using manners, being considerate, showing empathy, and allowing children the opportunity to say no. The following are four areas which I believe are vital to creating relationships of consent between adults and children and could have a significant impact later on in life...
Please and thank you - no surprises there right?! I'm not really talking about children. In the power/control dynamic that is the adult/child relationship it often gets lost that adults should be using manners when engaging with children as much as children are expected to with adults. How many times have you caught yourself saying to your child or a child in your early childhood setting - 'Say thank you.' or 'What do you say?' but when it's our turn to reciprocate we exclude the words we are expecting children to add to the end of every sentence. It's the ultimate hypocrisy of the adult/child relationship that spans back to the beginning of time - Do as I say, not as I do! I think we can all agree that manners can go a long way in forming relationships of respect but the message about manners will never get understood and interpreted fully if we expect children to use them and neglect to use them ourselves.
This should go without saying and yet there tends to be an imbalance between the heavy expectations we place on children and what they see and experience coming from the adults around them. How respectful is it to expect children to remain at the table until they've 'finished their plate'? How respectful is it when we force children to sit like battery hens, herded onto a mat and expected to sit through three long winded stories and a few mono-toned renditions of nursery rhymes when all they really wanted to do was finish the hole they were making in the sandpit? What does that say about 1) the respect we have for our children and 2) the message we are sending about consent? Surely this represents an issue with consent when we are removing the opportunity from children to decide whether or not they are finished with their meal when they are full and when THEY are finished with their play experience. Respect and consent are interdependent, each relying on the other to form respectful, consensual relationships.
Where would we be if we weren't able to make informed, reflected choices? And yet again it is an area where adults seem to fall short while expecting children to 'make the right one.' Consent is fundamentally about choice. It should be a child's choice as to whether they want to hug someone else, or if they want to accept a kiss from someone else. It should also be their choice when they are full, finished playing, ready to share, joining mat-times etc. And our role as adults is to make sure that when the choice is made, we respect and honour it. Of course there are limits to choices as in when it comes to the safety and well-being of others, but if we as adults are role-modelling respect, manners, empathy, compassion, and if we ourselves are making reasonable, responsible, and reflective choices then children will inevitably have a point of reference. Having choices is one thing, respecting the choice made is what we as adults need to work on most.
Finally, the pièce de résistance. Children form their ideas about consent in all facets of their lives (especially with reference to play in early childhood) from those they look up to, who they see as worthwhile enough to replicate their behaviours. If we are seen as breaching the idea of consent then how can we expect children to respect it? We take them away from their play experience to the mat for a group session we are instantly breaching their ability to consent and to make that choice. By letting a child take a toy away from a child who has been playing with it and make a comment like 'Well it's always good to share....' we are validating the idea that consent isn't needed and the right of a child to consent can be violated whenever.
Ultimately if we are wanting to create an environment where the rights of children to consent are respected and viewed as crucial to their emotional and social development, then we ourselves need to model manners, respect, and acknowledging the choices that other people make. I for one am glad that the conversation about consent has reached us in the early years. It has made me and I am sure others reflect on other areas where we can be more effective in promoting consent alongside empathy and self-regulation as important life-long tools.