As children grow, they learn a lot about their own bodies as well as the bodies of those around them. While it doesn’t make sense to explain to a newborn that it is not okay to hit someone when they are just flailing their arms, as communication develops, there are many great ways to help kids understand respect and consent when it comes to their own bodies and those of others. This helps them to have agency over themselves as they develop and to communicate when boundaries are violated.
An easy introduction to consent is the passing of the peace. Especially with COVID precautions, many people have been clearer about the many ways to share the peace, so talking to kids in a children’s time, Sunday school, or while preaching or leading worship about the different ways to share the peace can help give them options for that time and help them understand when others do something other than hugging. It’s important in this conversation to emphasize that each person can choose what they want to do or be done with their body, so if anybody doesn’t want to hug, then they don’t have to, and they can figure out another option like a wave or high five. Talking about consent specifically when it comes to showing or receiving signs of affection is vital for children to feel safe in their faith community as they grow and develop. This is also important for kids to understand what sorts of touch are inappropriate. This can be as simple as reminding them to tell an adult they trust if someone is touching them a way they don’t want (and reminding adults to believe them).
While there are times when some form of touch needs to be done for a child’s safety (at the doctor, buckling into car seats, helping them climb something safely, etc.), it is important to explain why to them. Having a conversation with kids to explain when something is necessary for their safety helps mitigate the lack of agency they will experience when something is out of their control and can help them know that it is okay to ask questions or talk about when someone is touching them in a way they don’t like. It can be difficult in the moment to explain things, so when small occasions arise, practicing pausing, taking a breath if needed, and explaining why something is important can help build the habit for everyone. This is especially true in faith communities. Explaining to children why something is happening not only helps them understand and participate, but it will also help visitors of all ages in their participation.
Another way to incorporate consent conversations into a faith community is with healing stories. When healing stories come up, focusing on how Jesus seeks consent before healing people can connect the dots for everyone in the congregation around seeking consent from people of all ages and all abilities. Talking about it during a children’s time or in Sunday school as well as preaching about it helps kids and adults understand the importance of their own bodily autonomy as well as the importance of asking others for permission to touch them or get especially close.