Over the past year, we’ve watched people of all genders step out of the shadows to share their stories of sexual abuse, assault and harassment. With several allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, it is both disheartening and infuriating to hear the dismissive remarks of so many of our representatives and others in the public eye. Where does this toxicity end, and how can we take proactive measures to stop it?
For a lot of adults, the idea of addressing consent with children is alarming because of the relationship between consent and sex. However, it’s important to break down the concept of consent regarding boundaries, comfort, physical interactions and mutual respect before even getting into the subjects of sex, romantic relationships or toxic masculinity.
In elementary school classrooms, one of the first social emotional topics covered is the importance of keeping our hands and feet to ourselves and respecting others’ personal space. In early years, teachers redirect students to use their words to express themselves when having strong feelings, rather than using physical actions to get what they want. In these conversations and lessons, educators are already teaching the foundations of consent, and it is crucial to assign language to the concept of asking permission before touching anyone else’s body.
While teaching my third-grade students about consent, it has never crossed my mind to talk about sex. Instead, we talk about safe physical interactions that occur daily in the classroom and outside at recess, and how to communicate your personal boundaries with those around you. We begin by defining the word consent and breaking it down to its simplest form. (I have many students who are emerging bilinguals, and it is so important that all students can understand and access this vocabulary.) One student volunteers, “It means to give permission,” to which I reply, “OK, but what does it mean to give permission?” As a class, we define consent as “saying yes to letting someone do something.”
We move on to brainstorming situations when a person might need to ask for consent. Students giggle and contribute ideas such as giving hugs and kisses, but also state that it’s important to ask for permission when it comes to sharing and borrowing items from another person. One child proclaims, “And telling secrets! You have to ask permission to tell someone else’s secret!” Another grumbles, “I just got a haircut and everyone keeps rubbing my hair. I don’t like it when people touch my head!”
My 8- and 9-year-olds list ways to decline consent:
- “Stop it!”
- “I don’t feel like it”
- “Maybe later”
- “No, thank you.”
We pause to do some role playing when considering what consent does sound like. We look at our list of words and phrases to give consent:
- “Of course.”
But we linger on the speaker’s delivery, body language and tone of voice. I have a student to come up and act out a scene with me in front of the class: “Can I give you a hug?” he asks. “Um, OK…” I reply, looking and sounding as uncomfortable as I can muster. We repeat the scene, and this time, I respond by enthusiastically laughing, “No!” My class giggles, and we discuss how the lack of consent is communicated differently in each scenario.
We finish up our lesson by addressing some questions about gray areas: What if you really want a hug but the other person doesn’t? What if you’re in the middle of a hug and the person suddenly changes their mind and wants you to let go? What if the person usually gives you lots of hugs, but today they say no? As a class, we agree that all of these examples fall under the person not giving consent, and we have to respect their boundaries.
If we prioritize conversations around consent and boundaries at an early age, we lay the groundwork of developing our students’ moral compasses. As educators and adults, we cannot change the past, but we can teach our students strategies to change these outcomes in the future.
Here are a few useful books for discussing consent with elementary students:
- My Body! What I Say Goes! by Jayneen Sanders, illustrated by Anna Hancock
- Miles Is the Boss of His Body by Samantha Kurtzman-Counter and Abbie Schiller, illustrated by Valentina Ventimiglia
- I Said No! A Kid-to-Kid Guide to Keeping Private Parts Private by Kimberly King and Zack King, illustrated by Sue Rama
- Personal Space Camp by Julia Cook, illustrated by Carrie Hartman