fold your hands {on teaching consent to pre-schoolers}

“The boys kiss me on the bus every day even though I tell them not to.”


I’ve never been what you might call a helicopter parent. Last month after yoga, when a stranger asked me how I was handling my daughter’s transition to kindergarten, I made the mistake of not being appropriately mournful. She looked horrified, and I was forced to backtrack: “I mean, I get to spend more time with my other kid. Which is great!”

After a long summer, we were all ready for the rhythms of autumn and school. Dylan was practically born school-ready; the only thing I was remotely concerned about was the bus. See, I remember the bus. I remember a particularly nasty fifth grader who called me an asshole and made fun of the knock-off pink Chucks I wore in first grade. I remember an inexplicable corn fight, brawls in the aisle, and setting my backpack down in a pool of loogie. We won’t even talk about P.D.A. on the high school bus.

A public school bus can be something of a study in anarchy, and recent news stories and bullying exposés hardly engender renewed confidence in the wheeled, yellow free-for-all. But Dylan was so excited to ride it, counting down the days ever since she started pre-school. I figured we’d give it a shot, and see what happened.

What happened is that boys kissed my five-year-old.

When they get rowdy or grabby, we tell our kids, “Fold your hands.” It applies when we’re headed into a store, but more often than not it’s about how we don’t touch people without their permission. We use our hands to help, or we keep them to ourselves. Consent to touch is not implied.

Conversations about personal boundaries and “No means no” don’t start in middle school; we have them now, every day. My kids aren’t tiny extensions of my husband and me. They are their own people who bear the Imago Dei, and their bodily autonomy ought to be honored.

I contact her teacher. She tells the boys to refrain, but the unwanted kissing continues. My husband informs the bus driver, but they persist, and we learn it’s been happening on the playground, too. Are consent and touch part of school policy, classroom conversations, and discipline? I ask in follow-up email. Could a teacher please end this right now?

I don’t hear anything right away, but the next afternoon Dylan bounds off the bus grinning.

“There was NO kissing today. I saw the principal talk to the boys at school.”

I was pleasantly surprised and grateful with how decisively the school finally handled it. There haven’t been any incidents since.

We don’t make our children kiss relatives or tickle anyone after “Stop.” We talk a lot about being gentle with our hands and heeding other people’s “No.” We talk about respecting privacy, honoring boundaries, and not touching people without their permission. Love is more than words or feelings; it encompasses what we do with our bodies–and how we refrain.

We don’t get it right all the time. The kids still push and fight. I don’t leave enough time exiting a play date and have to wrangle an unwilling three year into his car seat. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying.

We help with our hands. Or we fold them together, a symbol of self-restraint. And possibly prayer.

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