As a child, I remember being asked by my parents to give every family member a hug when I saw them. Not that I can recall minding very much, but I don’t remember ever having a choice to say yes or no. At most, I would have asked my mom if I had to hug aunts and uncles that I saw every few years or not because I was shy, not necessarily because I was uncomfortable.
Growing up in an Asian household, consent was never explicitly addressed more than any other potentially awkward conversations. But even from an early age, the concept of consent isn’t hard to understand or learn. At its core, it’s about respecting each other’s boundaries and having a choice.
Consent should not be something we learn as children during a mandatory workshop with a guest speaker once a year. Even during these discussions, the conversation mainly addresses how to be safe around strangers and doesn’t teach children about simple, daily examples of consent. If you work with children or have children of your own, it’s necessary to model consent. Learn how to ask questions to children about what behaviours or actions are appropriate or preferred. Don’t push your children to hug adults or other children if they don’t want to. There is a big difference between telling your child, “Give him a hug” and asking them, “Do you want to give him a hug or a high five?”
Building a solid groundwork for consent when children are young will help keep the conversation going when discussions around consent begin to involve sexual harassment and sexuality. Discussing personal boundaries will educate children on keeping themselves safe and building safe friendships and relationships. “No means no,” but so do so many other verbal and nonverbal cues that children can start learning from a young age. What it means to give consent, what consent can sound like or what to say when you don’t want to give consent are all ideas that can change their perspective and knowledge about healthy relationships for many years after.
If you’re someone who works with children and youth, I encourage you to instill the notion of consent in daily situations and continue the discussion with them. I disagree with anyone that says teaching children consent from an early age will encourage them to have sex earlier or “lose their innocence.” It’s more than just “no means no,” and the discussions should start sooner rather than later. So, the next time parents ask their children to give you a hug or kiss on the cheek, stop and ask them first if they feel uncomfortable. Children are often too shy and don’t realize that saying no to their parents is an option, even if they feel uncomfortable. Allowing them the opportunity for them to decide yes or no will change their perspective on autonomy and respect. The core of consent is to model and teach children the building of healthy friendships and relationships.