All One in Church, Part 9: Consent
Children learn about consent when we respect their choices about us touching them. Many people love to hug children, but just because we are bigger, it does not give us the right.
I have just observed a relationship lesson for ten-to-eleven-year-olds. The children were told that as they get older, it’s normal to start having girlfriends and boyfriends but having no interest in romantic relationships is also normal.
We also looked at a picture of a girl and a boy balanced on a seesaw. They often go to the movies together, but only one of them ever chooses the film. The class understood that wasn’t fair and the teacher talked about “power balance.” The see-saw became unbalanced because one child was holding all the power. The teacher asked how the couple could get the balance back. A child suggested they take turns to choose the film; everyone agreed.
Young people need to understand what makes a relationship good or bad
The class then discussed a situation where one person wanted to kiss and cuddle, but the other person did not. A girl said it was better to stay with a bad boyfriend because otherwise, you might end up with no boyfriend.
The teacher sensitively talked through how it would feel to be in an unequal power relationship and why it might be better to end it. These children clearly trusted their teacher and benefited from time spent discussing power and control in relationships.
Some parents are very anxious about relationship lessons, but my experience was reassuring. I left wishing I had experienced similar lessons as a child. The children learned about control in relationships, consent, the importance of seeking permission before making physical contact and the right to say No! to physical contact.
I see this as part of the commandment “Thou shalt not covet.” (Exod 20:17)—that we don’t stray toward someone else’s body if they don’t want our advances. Young people need to understand what makes a relationship good or bad and learn how to prevent making or receiving inappropriate sexual advances.
Children also learn about consent when we respect their choices about us touching them. Many people love to hug children, but just because we are bigger, it does not give us the right.
Accepting a child’s request not to hug or their attempt to free themselves is important for their long-term sexual safety.
If we impose on young children, they may grow up believing they have to accept physical advances. They may also believe that it is normal for adults to impose themselves on others and do that themselves. Failure to understand consent can cause serious trouble with the law and long-term psychological damage for all concerned.
Anyone can fail to seek consent, and anyone can be the victim of this. We live in a patriarchal society and so it can feel natural for it to be men who make decisions, but it should never be presumed that men alone have the right to decide issues, particularly in relationships with women.
Everyone needs to be aware of the need to take other people’s wishes into account. Our role model for this is Jesus. When he wished to be baptized, John did not accept his request. Jesus did not insist on baptism, but he calmly explained to John that it was the right thing to do. “Then John consented.” (Matt 3:15 NIV).
When people approached Jesus, he didn’t presume anything but asked people what they wanted from him. This is a fail-safe way to avoid problems with consent. There is much we can do to teach children how to stay safe and to prevent ourselves from causing distress to others.
- Teach children to say, “No, I don’t want you to do that,” so that they know they have a right to decide who touches their body.
- If someone looks like they need a hug, ask them; don’t presume. If a child resists holding, let them go.
- If someone else’s child comes to you for affection just use one arm so they can slip away when ready.
- Teach the Underwear Rule: anything covered by your underwear is private and no one can touch you there without permission.1 Children should even expect healthcare workers to treat them with respect about their private parts.
- Talk to young people about relationships. When watching films or reading books together, talk about who holds the power and whether that is right.
- Use the proper names for body parts. If children think we’re embarrassed, they may come to believe they are not allowed to talk about their bodies.
- Put up a sign at your ecclesia saying who is your Designated Safeguard Lead so that everyone knows who to talk to if they have concerns. Make this a part of your Child Protection Policy.
- Many adults, as well as children, feel uncomfortable receiving physical contact. When you greet people at church, don’t presume they want to be kissed or hugged. Many people dislike this. If you lean towards them and they don’t lean towards you, they probably do not want a kiss. The Biblical instruction to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (2 Cor 13:12) would have been for people of the same sex. Men insisting on kissing women was not intended and can cause distress.
- At least once a year, talk about staying safe to Sunday School scholars, CYC members and have it as a topic for Bible Class.
- Do some fundraising for a charity that supports people who have been abused. This gives a clear signal to everyone that people who have been abused deserve help. You could also offer to volunteer for the charity.
If we respond respectfully to children and they see us being sensitive to each other, we “in everything set them an example by doing what is good.” (Titus 2:7 NIV). They will grow up expecting the type of healthy relationships that were part of God’s original plan.