learning

The Surprisingly Easy Way to Teach Young Kids About Consent

  • Jordana Horn
  • I got “woke” this morning before 7 a.m., all thanks to some sequins.

    You’ve probably noticed that many, many kids have flippy sequin shirts. Not only are they super shiny and sparkly — an instant plus with most kids in the 3-10 age range — but there is also something remarkably, oddly pleasant about the tactile sensation of running your hand up and down the sequins to flip them in one direction or another. Kids particularly love the sensory element of these shirts (though adults are not immune).

    As with all great things, though, there are problems. Around 6:20 a.m. today, I was in my den with a few of my kids, watching a show on TV. Out of the corner of my sleep-encrusted eye, I noted my 3-year-old daughter hovering around my 7-year-old daughter, not unlike a vulture circling its prey. She was slowly reaching her stubby little arms out to stroke the sequin globe on my 7-year-old’s shirt. My 7-year-old, in turn, had noticed and held her arm out ramrod straight to forcibly hold her sister back from her shirt

    It looked like things were going to turn into a knockdown-possible-stitches situation real quick.

    “I WANNA TOUCH THE SHIRT! I WANNA TOUCH THE SHIRT!” the little vulture screeched, diving in beneath her sister’s outstretched arm.

    “MOOOOOOMMY! MAKE HER STOP TOUCHING ME!” my 7-year-old whined.

    “If you didn’t want anyone to touch you, you shouldn’t have worn a shirt with sequins,” I growled, throwing back my first sip of coffee (usually, the children understand they shouldn’t interact with me before the first cup is nearly finished).

    And just then, as the first drops of caffeine awakened my brain, it hit me: Ohhhh shit. I mean, how different was my implicit reasoning from, “She wore a miniskirt, so she was asking for it”? Come on, Jordana. Think.

    I went over and took the little bird of prey by the hand. “You have to ask someone’s permission before you touch them,” I told her. “Even when they are wearing a sequin shirt you like.”

    “Okay. Can I please touch you?” she asked her sister. “I want to touch your shirt.”

    “Okay,” Ms. Sequin answered. “But don’t block my view of the TV.”

    Crisis solved. But we had a bigger discussion later, because I’d realized that I’d screwed up: I had seen a sibling argument as “annoying interference with my coffee consumption” rather than “teachable moment.” Unless you’re, say, a British aristocrat, the common “tea?” metaphor for how to gauge whether or not there is mutual sexual consent and/or interest is not going to work for little kids. Little kids, for the most part, probably aren’t interested in drinking tea (or sex, for that matter, but let’s move on).

    But there is definitely a worthwhile discussion to be had with little kids about who gets to touch your body — maybe not only facilitated, but also actually necessitated, by the proliferation of flippy sequin shirts! Because surely a talk about consent shouldn’t just be about proverbial “private parts.” In fact, it should start way before that, with more public areas of our body.

    How many of us who gave birth experienced the trespass of random strangers coming over and rubbing our belly? Maybe you were like me and didn’t mind that much — I mean, I had six kids, so I am basically insensitive to all touch at this point — but that’s not even really the point. The point is that you need to ask someone before you touch them. You ask out of respect for them as an individual, and out of respect for their personal space. Touching someone without their consent, even if it’s not in a sexual way (I’m assuming that pregnant-belly-rubbing wasn’t flirtation), can be invasive. Not only that, but whether intentionally or otherwise, it can implicitly convey a lack of respect for the person within the body.

    We can’t start teaching our kids how to respect each other — or self-respect, for that matter — too soon. Wearing a flippy sequin shirt to school or camp doesn’t and shouldn’t mean it’s open season on your torso for every kid around you. It means it’s an opportunity to learn how to respect each other’s space, and to learn how to ask. It means it’s a chance to teach your kid how to use their voice to say, “Please ask me before you touch me so I can tell you if I think it’s okay or not.”

    And those lessons will come in handy for the rest of our lives.