Children, Consent, and Parenting

I was at the home of friends with a young child the other day, and I was troubled by an interaction I had when I arrived. It’s an interaction I commonly have in similar situations, so I don’t want anyone to think that I am singling these parents out or labeling them as bad people — rather, we live in a world where some things are very deeply engrained, and parents pick them up as much as anyone else does.

I arrived at the door and one of the parents let me in, while the child clung shyly to the parent’s legs. I said hello and we hugged, and the child, who hadn’t met me before, stuck behind the parent, clearly trying to suss me out.

‘Come meet our guest,’ the parent said, pushing the child forward.

It clearly made the child uncomfortable. It wasn’t that the kid was afraid of me, just that the kid wanted to meet me on less charged terms, after determining whether I was someone the kid wanted to meet. And I was totally fine with that; everyone, of all ages, gets to decide who they want to associate with, how close they want to be to people, and what kind of contact they have with people.

But the parent kept pushing, and then insisted that the child give me a hug. When the child started to get upset, the parent clearly seemed embarrassed, like I thought the child’s reticence was reflecting poorly on the parent’s abilities to raise a kid. I tried to say that it really wasn’t a big deal and I wasn’t bothered at all as the child became more and more uneasy and the parent got more and more flustered, and it set an unpleasant tone — even though, when I left at the end of the night, the child felt comfortable enough with me to shake hands.

I see this happening a lot. Parents will tell a child to shake hands/hug/give someone a kiss, or people meeting a child will swoop in and demand physical contact, without checking with the child to see how she might feel about it. There’s an assumption that children’s bodies are part of the commons, and that adults are welcome and encouraged to include physical contact (I’m talking about nonsexual physical contact here, obviously) in their interactions with children. Children are punished for asserting their boundaries and saying no — I see kids sent to their rooms, or ordered to hug an adult back, or otherwise penalised for saying that their bodies are their own and they’d feel more comfortable not touching someone.

Most parents, I strongly believe, do this with the best of intentions. They want their kids to be outgoing and social, and they also want people who are meeting their kids to feel like the kids are engaging with them. But at the same time, it teaches children that they don’t have boundaries, that adults won’t respect their bodies, and that later on in life, they shouldn’t assert themselves when they’re uncomfortable with contact. That has real consequences, and it feeds into larger conversations about consent, bodies, and autonomy.

It’s ‘good manners’ to let someone touch you even when you don’t want her to.

People need to learn at every age that consent is something that must be given before contact, especially intimate contact. And kids need to learn that it’s both okay to say no, and that when they say no, unwanted contact will not be initiated, or will stop. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with not wanting to touch someone you don’t know, or with wanting to take a break from contact you find overstimulating — roughhousing with parents or siblings, for example, can be tons of fun, but you might still need to take a breather. Consent should be strongly built into parenting, and it should be built into the way we interact with children.

I never touch children without permission from the child, and I don’t just look for verbal permission, but also for physical cues, although they can be hard to read as an autistic. If a kid is being shoved at me by a parent and the child is obviously not comfortable, I’ll ask if she wants to shake my hand. If she doesn’t, that’s fine, and I don’t push the issue. If she says yes, but she’s clearly still not cool with it, I don’t shake her hand, because I want her to learn that it’s okay to not want to touch strangers, and that just because I’m friends with her parents doesn’t mean I have any kind of right of ownership over her body. It’s her body, and she gets to decide whether she shakes hands with me or hugs me.

When we talk about things like rape culture and consent culture, we often don’t give nearly enough attention to the importance of parenting and supporting parents. Parenting is hard work, and it’s a complex job, and there are tremendous social pressures at work on parents, with endless conflicting advice on the ‘right’ way to raise kids. We need to be affirming positive, supportive parenting that helps children grow into independent, confident, assertive people who know their boundaries and respect those of others — and we also need to acknowledge that the burden here isn’t solely on parents.

While I don’t have the responsibility of raising other people’s children, I do have the responsibility of carefully thinking about my interactions with kids. Children are impressionable, especially around the friends of their parents or people their parents admire and respect. That’s a huge responsibility, and it needs to be taken seriously. How would I have wanted to be treated as a child? How can I affirm a child’s right to her own body, feelings, and opinions? These are things I think about even in momentary interactions with children, because children are human beings, and they should be respected.

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