Wendy Weiss Southern,
Director of Religious Education firstname.lastname@example.org
As we near Valentine’s Day, the time of expressing our love for others, it’s a good time to consider how we show affection to the children in our lives, whether they be family, friends, or in our congregation. Here at Westside, and in UU churches in general, we teach the terms of consensual relationships to our youth in OWL (Our Whole Lives is a UU lifespan sexuality education program), create safe learning environments in our RE Program, and practice Safe Congregations guidelines with our volunteers. Children are supported at all ages in understanding that they are the owners of their bodies and that they have the right to accept or decline interactions with other children and adults as they see fit for themselves.
So, what does that mean for adults exactly? Many of us grew up at a time or in other cultural norms in which we were expected to respect our elders, family members, prominent figures in our community, teachers, coaches, religious leaders, and older children without question. You might remember as a child being expected to give your great aunt a hug and kiss during holiday visits, to sit on Santa’s lap for a photo, or to be polite around your parents’ friends and “mind them” if they made a request of you. None of these things are bad in and of themselves and are in most cases benign events that neither intend nor cause harm.
Maybe you can remember how you felt as a child those few times you saw that great aunt and felt scared and didn’t want to give her a kiss. Or Santa, who was a complete stranger, was not someone upon whose lap you wanted to sit. There were times you experienced fear or unease. Those times, no matter how you felt, you were still expected by your parents and the other adults present to act in a manner they deemed appropriate. As adults urging young people to accept unwanted contact, or making physical contact without their consent, we are inadvertently teaching our children to disconnect with their ability to gauge their own comfort levels around people and respond in ways that allow them to feel safe.
When we are acting in ways that support children’s inner sense of safety, we honor their choice to respond differently to people in various situations. If a child doesn’t want to give a hug to the great aunt or shies away from a family friend, we don’t force the interaction otherwise. In supporting their decisions, we might discover something that would help them feel more comfortable in the future and guide them in engaging in a way that feels safe to them.
The OWL training I attended with Rev. Carol and Mike Fisher reinforced this idea. As children grow into preteens and teens, their comfort levels around being touched change. That elementary aged kid who would always run up and give you a hug might now feel uncomfortable giving or receiving hugs as a teenager. As OWL leaders, we’re instructed to ask before we offer a hug and to create a safe situation that allows for the answer to be “No.”
This is a good standard for all of us in relation to our youth and children at Westside. So, when we’re together at church and enjoying our youth and children so much we just want to squeeze them, be sure to check in with them first. It’s as simple as asking, “Can I give you a hug?” Honoring their response, without taking it personally, is the practice of consensual relationships.
Our children are very loving and affectionate at Westside and often give out spontaneous hugs to their teachers and the people they know. The best gift we can give them, one that nurtures their ability to feel safe in expressing themselves, is to recognize them as self-directed beings who are learning their own limits with physical and emotional expressions. Let’s support this generation and our UU culture’s belief and practice that all children and youth have a right to say “no” to contact that does not feel good to them.
Adult consensual relationships require both parties to take responsibility for making sure each person has the right to consent or not. In the case of adult and child relationships, a larger percentage relies on the adult to create the space for consent for a child. These are boundaries that allow for a healthy expression of love and caring in our community.