There has been a lot of discussion recently about the problem of sexual assault on college campuses, as well as the importance of banishing "rape culture" and teaching people, generally men, to understand that "no means no." Tightly paired with this are discussions about the ways our schools teach about sex and puberty and all of those things, and how we ought to be like many European nations, where the consent discussion is started much, much earlier.
I'm a children's librarian. I am also a mandated reporter, and I know what to look for as far as identifying abuse and how to help a person who may approach me and disclose that they've been assaulted. I also know how to find information for parents to begin to teach their children about consent and about loving relationships of all kinds. For the most part, though, this type of discussion is beyond the realm of my position. I don't do "consent storytime" or provide sex education in our library's program.
I do, however, believe that a major part of teaching children about consent and explaining that "no means no" or "only yes means yes" or however you want to phrase it begins with honoring a child's no. I have had a long-standing practice of not requesting/requiring hugs or other forms of affection from children who are unwilling to give them, even if their parents want to insist that they "give Miss Jenni a hug." I usually reply with something like, "It looks like So-and-so is a bit shy today and doesn't want a hug. That's okay," and then I finish off my conversation and move away so the child is not forced to do something they do not want to do.
You see, when I was a child, I was taught that adults were always right and always to be obeyed. Always. So I was subject to many unwanted hugs and kisses from the time I was very young, and knowing I could never, ever tell an adult no meant that it was that much easier for my uncle to rape me when I was six years old, and to continue doing so throughout the rest of my childhood. I wasn't allowed to say no; it wasn't really part of my vocabulary.
|My first day of kindergarten. I didn't learn about saying "no" for nearly three decades.|
A big part of learning that "no means no" is learning that my no means no. This plays out frequently in my library programming. If I am taking pictures of kids as they work on their science experiments at science club or their crafts at a craft program, I always ask, "Is it okay if I take your picture?" Most kids and parents don't mind, but I have had children say no before, even as their parents said it was okay. When a kid says no, I say, "Okay, thank you for letting me know," and I move on to another group. At our LEGO club last week, I had a rug set out with a bucket of DUPLO blocks on it for the younger children. A little boy who was probably 18 months old or so toddled over to the bucket. His adult was watching him, but I thought he looked lonely, so I squatted down near the rug and said, "Can I play with you?" He shook his head no, vehemently. So I left. I said, "Okay, maybe another time," and I got up and walked over to another group.
What young patrons learn, without my directly teaching it to them, is that if they say no, I'll honor it. That means anytime they say no - no, I can't take a picture of their experiment; no, I can't play blocks with them; no, they don't want a new sheet of paper; no, they don't want help cutting the craft. Except in the case of something life-threatening, I honor a child's no in the same way I would honor an adult's. I don't expect them to explain themselves, and I don't try to convince them to change their minds.