Guest post by: Kristopher Kole Wyckhuys, Prevention Education Specialist, HAVEN
This month is Stalking Awareness Month. In its most fundamental form stalking is defined as any unwanted obsessive attention or contact between individuals or groups of people. The contact may be physical or through technology and directly or indirectly communicates an explicit or implied threat, leaving the victim feeling fearful or intimidated.
Education around legal definitions, signs of stalking, and resources for victims is necessary and important. As a Prevention Education Specialist I understand the importance of also talking about primary prevention, or ending stalking behaviors before they ever begin. In order to do that we would need to take a closer look at entitlement, respect, and consent.
Primary prevention best practices would have the message of consent and respect come at an early age. Teaching children to respect bodily autonomy and consent should be delivered through mixed methods, from multiple sources, and at several stages of child development. Accountable communities would teach children the ethics of consent in such a way that encourages children to want to be respectful of each other’s boundaries and to know that their own bodies and personal space should also be respected – even by parents, relatives, teachers or other figures of authority. We would teach them that violating bodily autonomy would never be socially acceptable or tolerated.
I recently met with a group of teachers and counselors to discuss alarming behavioral issues that have swept their 5th grade classes. I was told stories of children leaving repeated love notes and death threats in lockers and desks, stories of kids following other kids around the playground even after having been asked to stop, going through belongings without consent, and harassing and intimidating behaviors and threats being delivered through text message, social media and other technology mediums. Their request was that I add a section within our Gender Respect curriculum related to bodily autonomy, consent and age appropriate bystander intervention.
At first glance, and out of context, these children’s behaviors sound strikingly similar to stalking behaviors. These behaviors are often dismissed as typical child development or even as “cute” or expected between children. This normalization of disregard for consent is absorbed by kids at extremely young ages and may lead to harmful behaviors when children mature into adulthood.
Many parents, teachers and media outlets unknowingly teach children harmful ideas about consent.
Talking to children and teaching them consent and respectful behavior at early ages isn’t difficult and here is a basic guide to start:
- Ask for consent before doing anything to a child’s body. Ask before picking them up, hugging, tickling, cuddling, or kissing their cheek. Respect their answer if they say no or ask you to stop and teach them to do the same.
- Respect a child’s request to be put down if you’re holding them. Never require them to hug or kiss a relative unless they say it’s okay. Children communicate lack of consent through both verbal and non-verbal cues and it’s important to recognize signs and teach them to do the same.
- Teach children that their body belongs to them and its okay to tell a grown up or another child not to touch them, hug them, or kiss them.
- In instances where a child’s consent to touch their body is overridden in a need to protect from harm (A speeding train is about to hit them and you need to pull them to safety), apologize for surprising them and grabbing them without asking first, then explain why it was necessary to do so in that moment.
- Teach children that when they violate personal space, boundaries and/or consent of other children, it may be scary and hurtful to the other child. Talk about the feelings that may come up when someone doesn’t respect personal space and how to avoid hurting others in that way.
HAVEN is Oakland County Michigan’s center for the treatment and prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault. For additional information or to learn more about Prevention Education options in your school system contact HAVEN’s Prevention Education Department at 248-334-1284, ext. 360.