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It is important that even children understand this because rape culture doesn’t just bloom when you become college age.

Picture this: Generic holiday movie. Old family member, bending a wrinkled cheek down to an elementary school age child. Well-meaning parents pushing them forward with, “Give great so-and-so a hug!” Usually played for laughs because this is harmless, right? Here’s the thing though: Life isn’t a movie and forcing your kids to give people affection actually does real harm.

To keep it simple, forcing your kids to kiss and hug relatives or friends makes it harder for them to understand and practice consent. It normalizes ideas that no doesn’t mean no and silences their abilities to stand up for themselves in uncomfortable situations. On the longer timeline, it reinforces the tenants of rape culture.

What you learn as a child continues to influence you as an adult. We don’t age out of the teachings of our youth, we just continue to live by them unless we are able to do the work to unlearn them. When you tell children that they must consent to giving affection, even if they don’t want to in order to avoid being seen as rude, you are telling them that their bodily autonomy is less important than upsetting someone else.

People, especially those socialized as and assumed to be girls and women, have it constantly drilled into their minds that they should put the comfort of others above their own and, in many cases, above their safety as well. This isn’t a concept that develops mysteriously, it is one that starts very early. This socialization teaches us that we should push our feelings and desires away, that they come second in any situation where someone else has more social authority.

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Among older family members, employers, any situation where one party has more power than the other are spaces where these old lessons can come into play. It conditions people to submit to things that don’t feel right or are just flat out wrong.

Your family is the training ground for the social skills you’re going to carry for the rest of your life, and teaching your children early that they have no say over their bodies is a lesson that they will repeat to greater degrees throughout their life. If they can’t say no to giving Aunt Cindy a kiss when they’re five because it’s rude, they won’t be able say no to giving Brad one at fifteen for the same reason.

And then there’s the elephant in the room. Not everyone in the family is a safe person.

That’s a hard pill to swallow.  No one wants to think that the evil of the world exists under their own roofs but it’s sadly, very true. Most sexual assaults are carried out by people that the victim knows. The reason why a child doesn’t want to be affectionate with someone may be because they make them uncomfortable, and although there may not be a greater reason for it in all cases, in some cases, that child has picked up on the fact that the family member or friend is a creep.

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And even if they’re not, what happens when that child is presented with a family friend or relative who is?

This is why it’s important for children to be able to say no. To know that they have final say over their own body when it comes to affection. That their own feelings and safety are held in higher esteem to another person’s hurt feelings.

If children are empowered in the training ring of family to trust their own instincts and are supported in their choices, they will feel more confident in making those choices later in life in other social situations. They will know that the world doesn’t stop because they’ve declined to make themselves available to someone.

The flip side to this is that aside from teaching children that they are not obligated to give their affection to anyone, it also teaches them that no one is obligated to accept affection from them either. Early on, children should be shown that there are no situations where someone is entitled to their body in part so that they can learn the reverse; that they are not entitled to the bodies of anyone else.

It is important that even children understand this because rape culture doesn’t just bloom when you become college age. It is in effect on our lives from the moment that we’re born and shapes so many of the decisions we make. These simple lessons may not seem like much but teaching a child early that their body is their own and they get to decide who has access to it goes a long way to pushing against rape culture as it destroys the ground it would grow on.

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Dismantling rape culture as an adult is awesome, but keeping it from finding a foothold in the next generation is even better. This is a small act and won’t tear all the walls down at once, but it will help build a new foundation for healthier, more balanced relationships between people in the future.

So, tell your kids that just saying hello is sufficient and if Great so-and-so insists, tell them to back off because no means no. No matter who says it, no matter how small.

 

Artwork by Dania Alexis

 

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