In preparation for the holiday season, it’s important to remember that the day-to-day things we say and do make a difference, even if they aren’t popular with every family member. Consent education really does begin at home.
Here are a few questions to ponder before the onslaught of potential visits by relatives you rarely see and an overall heightened stress level.
• What are your rules about tickling?
Tickling is something that many grown-ups impose upon young children, yet many children do not like it. They say stop, but because they are laughing, some adults take pleasure in pointing out their laughter must mean they are enjoying the activity. Inadvertently, children can internalize a message that they are powerless over older children or grown-ups, and that when they say “Stop!” it doesn’t matter.
If you do nothing else this holiday season and beyond, institute a rule that children must be asked before they are tickled, and if they say stop, the tickler —whether it is a grown up, teen, or another child — must stop. This seemingly simple rule will help your child experience consent in a very real way, have agency over their body, and empower them to understand the importance of consent. Equally important is a grown-up, teen, or another child understanding they need to stop when a child says stop, even if it is “just tickling.” Intervene, if necessary, and insist on consent.
• What are your rules about showing affection to relatives?
Do you insist that your child hug and kiss grandma and grandpa? Aunts and uncles? If so, consider if there is a polite way to give your child a choice. Perhaps they could shake hands or give a high-five instead. Allowing children to choose how they want to show affection, and having adults respect that, sends a powerful message to children that they have consent over how they share their bodies with other people.
If instituting this practice seems daunting, consider a pre-holiday conversation with relatives asking if they are willing to help you out by giving a choice in how the children can show greeting or affection. At the very least, make sure you are keeping an eye on the comfort level of your child during these exchanges of affection. It is not developmentally appropriate to put all the responsibility on a child to report discomfort. Adults need to make sure spaces are safe for our children.
• What are your rules about privacy?
With company potentially sharing spaces like bedrooms and bathrooms, consider what rules you have about privacy. Do you make sure doors are open unless someone is changing in private, showering, bathing, or using the restroom? Do you take into account a child’s comfort level in sharing space with an older cousin or relative? Do you remind all the kids and teens about expectations for respecting others’ privacy in the midst of sharing space together? Thinking through a few of these things with your particular family dynamics in mind can reinforce respect for boundaries and privacy, and model this for your children and others visiting your home.
What we do and say to our children on a day-to-day basis matters. Our children look to adults in order to create sense of the world and the people in it. By watching parents and other grown-ups, our children learn what is acceptable in terms of showing affection, respect in relationships, touching, communication, privacy and more.
In the midst of other holiday planning, take some time to create the gift of a culture of consent in your house.
Amy Johnson, MSW, is a trainer and educator in the Pacific Northwest. She is co-author of three books and facilitates classes and workshops in the Puget Sound area. Amy specializes in sexuality education and in promoting safe and healthy sexuality culture in faith communities. All opinions are her own. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.