Can I give you a hug?
I’m always amazed at how quickly small children just ‘get’ bodily autonomy. Sometimes when I deliver our Body Safety Superstars program to kindergarten children, they will hug or touch my legs while we talk. At the end of the first session they may give me a big hug as they walk me to the door.
In the second session we talk about how our body belongs just to us and nobody can touch it without permission.
It’s amazing to see the children absorb and immediately apply this lesson. At the end of the session I’ll gather my things, a small person will rush towards me, pull up short and ask, ‘can I give you a hug?’ before wrapping their arms around me.
While it’s fantastic to see children absorbing body safety lessons, we are huge advocates for the onus of care to be carried by adults. By working with parents and early childhood professionals, we are able to have adults model body safe strategies and create a safe environment for children to work out how to develop their own respectful relationships.
The best way to protect children from sexual abuse is to empower their adults to understand grooming and incorporate protective behaviours into their parenting. We do this by running parent and carer workshops prior to beginning our children’s sessions. Sometimes parents come to us with a general anxiety about what we will be teaching. The most common question we have is whether we are going to stop spontaneous affection in loving families.
I have two teenagers. I can’t imagine their early years without sudden sticky kisses and tight hugs around my neck. We know touch is so important to child development and to emotional security. The last thing we would ever want is to tell families they can’t show their love and care through affection!
What we are trying to do is teach children that they have bodily autonomy and can choose when they are touched, by whom, and in what way. When a child is raised with people touching them without consent they can often withdraw affection further as an attempt to avoid the touch that makes them uncomfortable. When they are raised with their voice being respected, they know that can give and receive affection freely as adults will stop when asked.
The parent sessions are complemented by professional development where we support the centre in embedding body safety education in the curriculum and modelling body safe practices in their workplace.
A topic that frequently comes up in primary and secondary schools is inappropriate photo taking and sharing. Teachers are dealing with the fallout of students taking photos without permission, altering them in a way that shames or mocks a student and uploading them to social media where they are shared without consent. Often when teachers address this issue, students seem genuinely bewildered that they are doing something wrong. After all, adults have been taking and sharing photos of them since they were born. And this doesn’t just apply to proud parents.
Because of rigorous documentation processes and the desire of parents and carers to be frequently updated about their children’s learning, early childhood professionals take many more photos of children than in any other education setting. All the staff we have worked with are meticulous about getting permission from parents and carers to take, store and upload photos.
But have you asked the children?
And do the children know that the photos in newsletters that are being sent to their parents are also being sent to the parents of other children – and probably their grandparents and other loving adults?
One centre we recently worked in embraced this notion of asking the children’s consent and immediately changed their practice to having regular conversations with the children about whether they wanted their photos taken and under what circumstances. They showed the children their documentation processes, and explicitly explained that the photos going online for mum, were also being sent to lots of parents – who were possibly sharing them on from there. All of a sudden, children were empowered to make informed decisions about the use of their image and educators were delivering a very powerful message that will hopefully influence the children’s future actions.
Child Safe Standards (Victoria)
The Child Safe Standards in Victoria ask for organisations to implement ‘strategies to promote the participation and empowerment of children’. While this is specific to Victoria, other states and territories are also looking be more proactive in child protection.
Educators and directors have told me that it has been quite confronting to move from a culture of being responsive to disclosures of abuse from individual children to one where they are encouraging the participation of children in their own safety. Of all the standards, this has been the most challenging to implement.
What does it look like to seek ‘children’s views about what makes them feel safe and unsafe’?
Common questions educators ask are:
- Can talking about child abuse actually traumatise children who haven’t been abused?
- Will we open a Pandora’s box of disclosures about private family matters?
- How do we support staff if they are dealing with a greater numbers of disclosures?
- Why doesn’t our mandatory reporting training cover dealing with the hurt to the entire community when a child has been abused?
These are big questions and it can seem daunting to air them in group training. Yet, every time we run this training, educators and directors come away feeling more confident, able and supported by each other in their role as child empowerment professionals.
How does your service approach consent? Do you find it difficult to negotiate these topics with families? Have you ever talked to colleagues about the questions above? Consider writing for us on this question from your local or state perspective: we will be preparing a national comparison of the current child safe standards across Australia later this month.