The Soapbox: Unwanted Touching Is Unacceptable At Any Age (Yes, Even Age 6)

kids hugging

This piece is crossposted with permission from RebeccaHains.Wordpress.com.

In this week’s news, a six-year-old boy in Colorado was suspended from school. The reason? He had repeatedly kissed one of his classmates, despite her telling him to stop.

The girl’s mother, Jade Masters-Ownbey, noted that the boy’s behavior had been an ongoing problem. The boy had pursued her daughter “not once, but over and over … not with her permission but sneaking up on her…not without warning and consequences prior to suspension,” according to the Canon City Daily Record.

“I’ve had to coach her about what to do when you don’t want someone touching you, but they won’t stop,” Masters-Ownbey told the Record.

Meanwhile, the boy’s mother, Jennifer Saunders, characterized the boy’s actions as stemming from an “innocent crush.”

When the school suspended the boy for sexual harassment, it caused a furor. People have been asking: can a boy of six years old actually commit sexual harassment? Popular sentiment seems to be that it’s not possible and that the school is overreacting. A “boys-will-be-boys,” laissez-faire attitude seems to underpin these sentiments — which in my opinion is dangerous.

To be fair, the boy’s behavior does fit the definition of sexual harassment, despite his tender age. He repeatedly pursued and kissed a girl, making unwanted advances on her because he had a crush on her.

And to the school’s credit, the administrators don’t seem to be overreacting or engaging in worst-first thinking; the suspension wasn’t the result of an overzealous zero-tolerance policy. According to CNN, the school doesn’t categorize student behavior as sexual harassment after an innocent grade-school kiss. They only do so if unwelcome contact or touching continues over a period of time.

Nevertheless, the pressure from outraged observers has been so intense that the school dropped the sexual harassment claim. The boy has also returned to school.

But it really bothers me that no one is talking about the bigger picture: the fact that we need to teach our children — even very young children — about bodily autonomy and consent. Shouldn’t that be the takeaway from this case? We should be having a cultural conversation about how to raise boys who know that girls’ bodies are not theirs for the taking. We need to raise boys who respect both themselves and others.

As I wrote previously, those of us who are parents of boys need to work on this issue. We need to teach our sons about two concepts – consent and respect – from an early age, in age-appropriate ways.

For example, my five-year-old son loves to hug and kiss his friends. He is sweet and affectionate, and when he first sees a friend or when it’s time to say goodbye, he wants nothing more but to wrap his arms around that friend and give him or her a big kiss.

Sometimes, his friends reciprocate, but sometimes, they clearly don’t want the physical contact. So, since about the time when he turned four-years-old, and he seemed old enough to understand, we’ve told him that he needs to ask his friends for permission first. We taught him to ask, “Can I give you a hug and a kiss?” We’ve also told him he needs to respect their answers, even if it’s disappointing, and I’m glad to see that this is now his usual approach. He gets their consent.

Then, there’s the matter of respect. When my son was three-and-a-half, he became interested in wearing nail polish on his toenails and fingernails after seeing me get a summertime mani-pedi. I agreed to paint his nails, but before sending him off to preschool, I prepared him for the possibility of pushback from his friends or even his teachers. “Some people at school might not like your nails,” I warned him. “But you like them, right?”

Admiring his shiny blue nail polish, he told me, “I really do!”

“So,” I coached him, “if anybody says they don’t like your fingernails, you tell them: ‘It’s MY body!’ Because it’s your body, and you get to decide what happens to it. No one else does. Can we practice? I will pretend to be another kid who doesn’t like your nails, and you can tell me, ‘It’s MY body!’ Okay?”

“Okay!”

A few practice scenarios later, and he was great at saying, “It’s MY body!” as a confident response to comments that disrespected his right to make decisions about his own body.

This was a great lesson for him to learn, because a few months later, when we set the rule that he needs to ask his friends for permission before hugging and kissing them, this helped us to foster an empathetic perspective. We were able to explain: “It’s HIS [or HER] body, and he [or she] doesn’t want you to hug and kiss right now. So you have to respect his [or her] wishes.”

All this is helpful in the present. I’m glad my preschooler has a basic, age-appropriate understanding of respect and consent, even if he doesn’t know those words yet. Everything we do now paves the way for future conversations, and I know that as he approaches adolescence, it will be easier for us to discuss consent and respect with him.

Since the broader culture gives such terribly mixed messages to our boys, I want to make it clear: consent and respect are not options. They’re necessities.

Rebecca Hains is a media studies professor at Salem State University. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

[Image of children hugging via Shutterstock]

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