Vulnerable children

Beta, give uncle a kiss: Are Indian parents giving children mixed signals about consent?

Before learning about good touch and bad touch, children should be able to refuse uninvited touching.

When high-profile, wealthy and well-travelled men like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey are able to water down sexual abuse by insisting they are too unschooled in recognising consent, we must wonder about serial criminal behaviour being presented as a genuine mistake and how best to prevent it.

How early should parents begin speaking to their children about consent? It’s obvious that talking about good touch and bad touch is a beginning, and yet it is inadequate to end the conversation there. Between those two polarities exists the slightly greyer area of uninvited touch – a subject we seldom broach with children, since it forces us to examine whether we can genuinely treat children as people with agency over their own bodies. It’s far easier to behave as though our children and their bodies belong to us, until they’re old enough to declare otherwise.

Give uncle a kiss

What is uninvited touch? We’ve all experienced it or seen it happen. An uninvited touch is the elephant in the room every time we push reluctant children to embrace newly arrived relatives, or hug the children of friends, even though they might hide from our touch. For most Indian children, the inability to show physical affection on demand is considered an emotional stutter or a hurdle to overcome, rather than an act of choice. It marks a child out, almost as though it were a character slur, of being a shy introvert.

Part of this is cultural, stemming from the shared understanding that it takes a village to raise a child, and that children are somehow the property of their family. Chrisann Creado, psychologist and professional development specialist, has extensive experience working with children in classroom situations, and said that parents and caregivers of collectivist societies like ours need to be sensitised about how to encourage children to “build boundaries for themselves and respect boundaries in others”. Creado also added that the question of when touch is appropriate is not easily resolved.

“Appropriateness becomes a function of what society thinks is desirable or what the culture permits along with the comfort levels of parents,” she said. “Very rarely do we stop to think that children themselves may not be comfortable with such gestures of affection.”

Consent 101

Meghna Chaudhury, co-founder of the Irrelevant Project, refers to this in her picture book titled Don’t Pull My Cheeks. The Irrelevant Project is part of an experimental learning module at Ashoka University’s Young India Fellowship, that brings feminist stories to children through picture books and classroom initiatives. The books are themed around body image issues, homosexuality, gender, sexual abuse, critical thinking and consent.

Chaudhury recalled how her interactions with children left her with the feeling that many of them were uncomfortable with a forced physical display of affection, and were left confused in a world where they were taught that adults are always right. This, she said, was her inspiration to write Don’t Pull My Cheeks.

The story is a first-person account by Bibloo, whose escalating encounters with the cheek-pulling Jon uncle, are an education in how to stick up for one’s self. Bibloo categorically states: “If you feel like pulling my cheeks because they are round, then don’t… From the time I remember, I don’t like my cheeks being pulled. It hurts!... But most importantly, I do not like ANYONE touching me without asking me first.”

The story and its illustrations keep from fetishising Bibloo’s cuteness, so that the story is firmly about his experience and not his appearance. Pranita Kocharekar, the illustrator of Don’t Pull My Cheeks, said keeping Bibloo’s appearance ordinary was a conscious decision,

“We wanted to make sure the child is as relatable as possible,” she said. Jon uncle’s affectionate cheek-pulling is all on him – Bibloo does not have obviously large cheeks, and the story is told from his point of view alone.

Bibloo also seeks help from his mother, whom he sees as a facilitator to his sense of agency and bodily autonomy. The story may be meant for kids, but ends with a note addressed to the child’s parent or caregiver, explaining its premise.

Why bother?

Books and projects that teach children about consent highlight the fact is that it’s time parents began thinking about this issue, and treating it as an important preliminary conversation to the larger discussion about sex and sexuality education with teenagers.

It’s easy to overlook the importance of such a conversation, or avoid it altogether because it feels awkward. But our behaviour as parents is hard-wired through memory and familiarity, into the kinds of adults our children will be. We cook as our parents did, our children will remember the food they ate at our tables. The skewed gender politics children see around them on the street and at school will leave their mark, but so will what they absorb at home. We must reconsider the way we encourage children to respect their feelings and those of others, when it comes to touch.

To blithely raise children to believe that grown-ups are always right, and then force them to accept uninvited touching is to sow the seeds of confusion. What happens when a generation grows up muddled about demanding and surrendering affection, is being played out around us every day.

Karishma Attari is the author of I See You and Don’t Look Down. She reviews books and runs a workshop series titled Shakespeare for Dummies.

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