How do you teach young children about consent? How do they learn what is and is not appropriate touch? How do we teach them to accept and respect the boundaries other people have set for their bodies and personal space?
These are difficult and confusing questions. The issues are complex and nuanced. It’s not as easy as “keep your hands to yourself” and “no means no.” It gets even more difficult when we say no one can touch you with out your permission but then we force them to let creepy Aunt Agnes to kiss them. If you delve into the layers of different relationships and social cues that vary from one society to the other and one family to another it becomes impossible to comprehensively impart this type of understanding to a child.
My suggestion is to give each child a cat. Why? Well, for starters our culture doesn’t expect as much in terms of tolerance and behavior from cats. Mans best friend is not permitted to bite or growl no matter what forms of torture and fear you subject it to. If Jr. pulls his tail and pokes him in the eye, Rover is just supposed to endure. Not so much for Fluffy. If you torture the cat there will be retribution and every adult will tell you it is your own fault. Therefore, I suggest that cats are the ultimate tool for teaching consent.
The alien dog has three cats who are his minions. These are not my cats. They make me aware that they are fully developed individuals who have chosen to live with the alien dog and tolerate me. They permit the alien dog to sleep with them, touch them, and play with them all on a regular basis. I am only allowed intermittent contact. Sometimes they want to sit on me but I can’t touch them. Sometimes they want to be pet or brushed. It’s all on their terms.
One of the cats is very large and has this incredibly fluffy pooch of a belly. It hangs down when he walks and he is very often lying on his back showing it off to the world. It is the softest fur I have ever touched. I love his belly fluff. He does not like me to touch his belly. Some days he will permit me to give it a quick rub. Most of the time he tells me no with a dirty look. If I attempt to touch the belly after the dirty look he will swat me away. If I persist there will be blood drawn. The cat gets to decide when and if I can pet his belly. And he can change his mind at any time.
The cats have also taught me that touch is not always reciprocal. Sometimes one of the minions likes to reach up and gently pat my face. One of them likes to reach out and barely touch my foot while I sleep. This does not mean that either of them like it when I touch their paws or face. I have the scars to prove it!
Ever try to pickup a cat that didn’t want to be held? Ever try to get one in a carrier? Ever try to get the cat off the bed so you can change the sheets? Yeah, good luck to you. Because a cat doesn’t change its behavior for you. It doesn’t allow your desire to determine its movements. If it wants to sit in the sun then you can just wait. There is no amount of begging, pleading, bribing, manipulating, or whining that will change a cats mind. Force them to your will at your own peril.
Now what about all this blood? Cats are notorious for scratching the hell out of you when you have crossed the line. We accept this as a natural behavior from an animal defending its right to personal space and the sovereignty to be felt the hell alone. Why do we permit this in a cat, but not in a human being? Perhaps it is the illusion of control. For some reason we have, as a culture, accepted that cats will never be fully domesticated. As such, we have entered into a contract where the humans and the cat will respect each others limits. Sometimes we will forget or cross a line. This will result in a gentle reminder, be it getting pushed off the bed when they attack you toes or being swatted at when you pet an off-limits area of the feline body. If it goes beyond that we agree that claws will be employed.
Give each child a cat and let them learn about consent through trial and error. Think of how valuable those lessons are. I summarized them for those in the back:
Point #1- Each individual gets to choose who is permitted to touch them
Point#2- Each individual can change their mind and owe you no explanation
Point #3- Just because you let them touch you that doesn’t mean they owe you a damn thing
Point #4- Your desire does not supersede any other individuals autonomy
Point #5- Individuals have the right to defend themselves if you don’t respect their boundaries.