My nephews, with whom I am close, were at our last Thrive! Dinner.  As things were wrapping up, I put my arms around the shoulders of one of my nephews and said, maybe next time we will talk about consent.  He looked up and asked “Consent? What’s that?”

I responded, “Well, I should have asked before I put my arms around you.”  With that I put my arms down and then asked if I could put my arms around him, to which he said “yes”.  I then asked if I could hug him and again he said ‘yes’ and we hugged.  “Is that consent?” he asked.  I said “yes and if you said ‘no’ or I didn’t want to, then we wouldn’t hug.”

Family closeness

There is a closeness in some families which is reflected in physical expressions like hugs.  As a result, it becomes natural for us to extend those expressions across generations.  Ours is a family that hugs, when we come together and when we leave and sometimes in between.  It is an expression of our love for one another.  A question to consider, however, is what happens if a child does not want to participate in this custom?

We know it happens.  Sometimes children are grumpy or moody or tired or simply playing shy and don’t want to hug one person or another.  It is easy for us to guilt them into relenting, telling them that they are making grandma sad or their uncle will be mad at them or bribing them into doing what is considered proper.  The goal, of course, is to encourage our children to be part of a tradition that is important to us and reflects the closeness of our family.  When physical expressions of our love for one another are the norm, we don’t necessarily consider alternative messages that might be sent when we try to get children to conform to that tradition.

Teaching Consent

What might happen, however, if when a child is reluctant to participate in these traditions we respect that decision?  What would we be teaching if we said, ‘that’s OK, you don’t have to hug grandpa today if you don’t want to’?  It is true that it may cause someone to feel left out, but it may also help our children understand that they can choose when to participate in hugs, while at the same time learning that it is OK for them, and someone else, to say no and have that decision respected.

Teaching Body Language

Certainly verbal cues provide important insights.  It is also true that before he left, my nephew (and his brother) gave me hugs without anyone asking if it is OK.  This is something we have done for a long time and there was no resistance indicated by anyone.  We are happy to share hugs.

This could create another opportunity to talk about what consent looks like for those people we know well.  Are there ways that we show resistance when we don’t want hugs?  What might happen if someone pushed away or even ran away when it came time to offer hugs?  This too could be a lesson in respecting boundaries and understanding consent.  There are many ways we say ‘yes’ and many ways we say ‘no’.  Recognising all the ways we communicate can impact the ways we come to relate to family, friend and stranger.

What do you think?

How do you recognise consent?  To what extent have you discussed consent in your family? Do you believe that it is important for us to have conversations about consent?  What does that look like for you?

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