(The names of the individuals in this post have been changed to protect their identity)
Consent is a very important and very tricky concept to build for a child.
In a society where rape culture is sickeningly prevalent, I’m relieved to see more of the parents I work with practicing consent with their child.
“Did you ask before you took it?”
“If they said ‘no,’ you have to listen.”
I work with kids and parents on a daily basis, and have for the past year. While at college, I studied and took trainings on sexual assault and consent. I learned that concepts like the importance of “no” and asking permission can and should be introduced at a very early age. I started looking at my interactions with my kids in terms of consent.
Almost every interaction I have with my kids is flavored by something I have learned. I make hundreds of choices every day, at each turn. I try to make the best choices based off of what I know.
I’ve been trying to teach consent with my kids in all the various groups I work with. Some of them love giving hugs. I love getting hugs. But I try to remember to say, each time, “Thank you for the hug! Let’s make sure we always ask before we touch, though.”
When one kid is getting unwanted attention, I remind the other, “Make sure we ask before we touch.”
If one kid is playing with something, or has a personal item with them, I remind the other kids if they try to play with it–“That’s not yours; make sure you ask before you touch it.”
I bring up the reminder every chance I get. Many of the kids I work with are young, so it takes consistent reminders before things start to sink in. It’s become part of my daily vocabulary, something that slips out as easily and naturally as “Thank you for listening,” “Make sure our voices are quiet,” “Please use kind words,” and “Thank you for helping me.”
I believe that the more they hear it, the more natural it will seem to them too–so that at some point, I won’t have to be around for them to remember that I say it, and hopefully that reminder is what helps them make a safe, kind choice later down the line.
I see almost every moment as a learning moment and every interaction as an opportunity. After years of working with a variety of youth in a variety of settings and capacities, I’ve gotten to a place where I feel confident navigating most situations, even if I’m jumping from one group to another within the week. I’ve learned that the way I say things has an enormous impact on how the day goes, and that it’s often the kids themselves who drive the most important twists and turns of the day. And sometimes small things will reveal big issues.
In one of my youth groups, it happened over Legos. Five kids sat at a table, each with their respective pile of Legos. Some of the piles were bigger than others–some of the kids had been playing for longer.
One of the kids was trying to get a Lego piece from another. I didn’t see the interaction, the cause and effect; I was looking at something else, and when I turned around, all I saw was Alan lifting his arm about his head to keep a piece away from Sam, and heard Alan yelling “Stop it already!”
“Captain Tonie, Sam keeps trying to take my piece!” Alan said.
I approached calmly and asked Sam the question I always did in this instance: “Did you ask if you could touch it?”
It was twofold; it’s not good to touch something someone else has if they said no. But its also important to share–none of the Legos belonged to the kids; they all belonged to the facility. While I want to emphasize each kid’s right to what belongs to them, I also have a responsibility to make sure our community materials are being shared.
So when I asked the question, I was trying to figure out which scenario this interaction fell into.
“Did you ask if you could touch it?”
It was pretty simply answered when Sam replied, “No.”
“Okay.” I stepped closer so I could see better. Each kids had a pile of Legos. Alan had a few more than Sam did.
“I want the hat,” Sam said.
“And I said no. I said he can’t have it,” Alan relayed to me.
“So, Sam,” I said, “Alan’s got the hat right now. It’s not okay to take something from someone if they said no.”
Sam contested this. He tried to backpedal, tell me the whole story, of how he’d had the piece first, even though that had been a few hours ago, how no one ever let him play, though he’d been playing with them for the past twenty minutes. I tried to get back to the point, which was that “No means no.”
I realized pretty quickly that this was about more than a Lego piece.
Sam felt entitled to the piece, even though it wasn’t his, even though Alan had it, even though Alan said no.
Sam kept contesting this, no matter how simply I tried to put it. Eventually, some of the other kids butted in. Usually I don’t like it when other kids get in on a discussion between me and one other, but this time I backed off a bit. When I heard what they were saying, I realized this was an important interaction between not campers and counselors, but campers and campers. If they figured this out between themselves, it would have that much more meaning.
“Alan didn’t even say you could have it,” Jordan said.
“Alan told me I could. I should get it.”
“I didn’t say yes,” Alan said. “I said maybe.”
“No, you didn’t,” Sam said. “You said you would give it to me.”
“He said maybe,” Evan interjected.
“No. He said will.”
“I heard. Alan said maybe,” Jordan put in.
“I said maybe,” Alan insisted.
“No, you said you would.”
“Either way,” I put in, “you can’t just take it if he changed his mind and said no.”
“Yes I can!” Sam insisted. “You can’t say yes and then turn around and say no.”
“He didn’t say yes, he said maybe,” Evan said.
“I said maybe. And then I said no. So no!”
“You said yes! You can’t just take it back!” Sam said.
Some of the others tried to stop things and just keep playing; normally I would agree and cut things off after we hit stalemates like this, just to keep the peace. But I found this point too important to just let go. My belief was confirmed when Jordan spoke up again.
“You know what, Sam?” he said. “If you ask, and he says maybe, he can take it back. Even if he says yes, he can still take it back. So just leave him alone already!”
Jordan had uttered a crucial statement that I hope he’ll carry with him the rest of his life. Consent is verbal and voluntary, and can be withdrawn at any time. Something grown-ass adults have a hard time grasping.
I was relieved when the other kids at the table agreed with Jordan. They stood up for Alan and reinforced the point that his “No” was important and needed to be respected. But Sam stared back steadily and said, “No. He can’t.” I broke a little inside.
It took a lot more fighting among them, a lot more stern talk and persuading from me, and Sam was still staunchly convinced that he had a right to take what he wanted, regardless of the other person’s feelings or needs.
Sam left that day still convinced that he had been the one wronged, that everyone was ganging up on him. He walked out with a skewed sense of what consent looked like. I worried for him; I worried for his home life, his future; what he might do to others–what he may let others do to him–if he continued life with this conviction.
I cried because I was so proud of Jordan for understanding what grown men refuse to. I was proud of the others for standing up for Alan when they saw him being intimidated and taken advantage of. I was scared, both of and for, Sam. I was shaken by the power in those minutes at the Lego table, and how much they said about my world and theirs.
I wanted to say something to Jordan’s mom when she came to pick him up, to let her know how proud I was of Jordan for understanding the importance of consent. But I wasn’t sure what would be effective and appropriate.
I have many, many hours to teach my kids about consent and the other lessons I try to weave into each day. Still, it often seems like every second is precious, and I need to squeeze every drop of significance from it. We live in a world where things can happen in a millisecond. Kids absorb what they see and experience. They internalize what authority figures convince them to believe. Those things can be positive or negative, or just things; but if I see each day as a series of choices flavored by the lessons I’ve learned, each day is at least one lesson that will shape a child’s perceptions, feelings, mindset, actions, reactions, and eventually their world.
As the adults–authority figures–in their lives, we need to make sure the lessons we teach are positive ones, that lead to positive growth.
If a 9 year old kid can use Legos to teach us about consent, why can’t the grown-ups of the world do something before our kids become rapists or raped?