At Treehouse Learning, the purpose of our sexual abuse prevention and body safe policies is to create a culture of consent and bodily safety based on trust and respect. While not all children will be sexually abused, all children are potential targets. We empower children to stay safe through the experiential learning that “My body belongs to me,” and “no one has permission to touch my body without my consent.” Children learn to respect their own bodies and the bodies of others when we show them what respect looks and sounds like with our words and actions, and when we practice giving, receiving, and withdrawing consent.
Here is a fascinating discussion related to the topic of respect for children, or those humans with the fewest revolutions around the sun under their belts. Take a listen to this Your Parenting Mojo podcast on childism and whether children should have the right to vote. While the premise of children voting is a jarring juxtaposition to our culture’s views of children and childhood, a consent-based culture fundamentally acknowledges and respects that all humans have a right to be engaged to be active participants in the world around them. Climate change, school shootings, and our system of education are all topics that will impact the life of a 5-year-old very differently than an 85-year-old. In building a more inclusive community of belonging, we affirm that all human beings arrive on earth equally deserving of dignity, respect, and the universal needs for significance and belonging met. We belong to ourselves, one another, and the world in co-centric circles- I, we, world.
This principle is echoed across time and place around the world, from indigenous teachings, religious and spiritual traditions, and similarly affirmed by the research-based principles of brain neuroscience, Alderian Psychology, play-based learning principles, and best practices for developmentally appropriate early childhood education. Turns out, RESPECT is always the way to go!
We believe that in order to effectively prevent childhood sexual abuse, we begin with respect. We encourage all people to use anatomically-correct language for parts of our bodies, and teach children that our private parts are private. As adults, we also practice giving and recieving consent with our children. For example, we can say to an infant, “I’m going to pick you up and change your diaper now,” and then simply pause for a moment.
For older children, safe bodily play (aka tickling or rough-play with parents) is a great way to practice exchanging consent. Many children love giving or receiving “ raspberries” by buzzing lips on a bare belly. Before doing this, we can have a conversation with our children, like this:
Adult: Would you like me to blow a raspberry on your belly?
Adult: OK! If you want me to stop, you can say the words ‘Stop!’ And if you say ‘Stop!’, then what will I do?
Adult: That’s right! Because your body belongs to you, and no one has a right to do something to your body without your permission.
During tickling times, we can establish ground rules ahead of time that when someone says “Stop!” all tickling or playing stops until the person explicitly says, “continue!”
There are times when we also have to break consent to a child’s body out of safety in order to prevent harm to self, harm to others or things, or safety. When this happens, we can acknowledge that we are breaking consent by honoring that despite our responsibility to keep children safe, their body still belongs to them, and we want them to develop bodily awareness. We can say something like, “I see you’re not consenting right now to bucking your car seat because your hands are pulling the straps, your back is arching and it looks like your body and words are saying ‘no!’ We always buckle our car seats to keep our bodies safe, and we’re going to need to buckle your car seat. Would you like to buckle the top clip first or the bottom clip?”
Prevention of childhood sexual abuse is dependent on an established relationship of consent. All of this is rooted in respect. When we are intentional, responsive, and respectful in our interactions, communications, and relationships with young children, we are building a consent culture. The fundamental building block of a world without sexual abuse in the first place is an ecosystem permeated by respect- for self, others, and the world.
Books to read with young children about body safety and consent: