Although giving consent and social emotional learning (SEL) have been topics of conversation and practice in education for some time now, I believe events in the national spotlight have brought the importance of these two concepts into sharp relief. I also believe that even the youngest children can learn they have agency about how, when, and why they interact with others and can learn self-care from a very early age.
Body autonomy is the right to control one’s body; it is the right to give or withhold consent. Consent has two parts: setting boundaries and clear communication. Young children know what feels “good” to them and what does not.
Some Things Are Scary written by Florence Parry Heide and illustrated by Jules Feiffer is one classic children’s book that shows children (and reminds adults) that kids’ experience their world from a different vantage point than “big” people do. The very first page of this book shows a large adult giving a small child a bear hug: “Getting hugged by someone you don’t like… is scary.” Another page reads: “Holding on to someone’s hand that isn’t your mom’s when you thought it was… is scary.”
Empathy, or perspective taking, is a life skill that can help young children (and all people) understand that individuals have the right to set boundaries for touch. Learning to clearly communicate one’s boundaries is another life skill that children can learn from an early age. Interactions with others that include “I” statements demonstrate to speakers and listeners alike that direct communication is important as we build healthy relationships.
Perspective taking (or empathy) and communication are two of seven research-based Mind in the Making life skills that support families as they offer young children opportunities for learning executive functions that impact social, emotional, and cognitive success. Visit their website for more information.
Social Emotional Learning
The family is the first place babies and toddlers learn about healthy emotions and positive social interaction. With caregivers and in preschool settings, children also learn behavioral norms that follow them into their K-12 education where SEL will help them succeed in an academic environment and throughout their lives.
As the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) notes on their website: “SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”
Please Don’t Give Me a Hug!
I am pleased that our board book Please Don’t Give Me a Hug! addresses both of these concepts—consent and SEL—for toddlers and preschool children, their peers, and caregivers. In the book, three non-gender specific children are shown in various social situations in which they and other characters use various gestures to say “hello, I see you” or “care” about you.
Written in the first person, the story emphasizes the importance of the child’s agency in setting boundaries and in communicating their preferences to peers, older children, and adults. The child-friendly illustrations by Estelle Corke clearly convey emotions. When receiving an unwanted bear hug, the expressions on these three children’s faces clearly show their discomfort. Their smiles when receiving or exchanging a wanted gesture show their pleasure in social exchanges that honor their boundaries.
Read Aloud and Early Childhood Education “Lesson Plan”
Of course, board books are intended for the lap listener and a reader who will engage a toddler in a reading experience. By sharing one’s thoughts to extend the print on the page, parents and grandparents, siblings, and other readers can enculturate young children into the pleasure of experiencing life through the words and illustrations of a book. Engaging book listeners in a dialogic reading experience through asking open-ended questions helps them enter into the story and express themselves through language.
Please Don’t Give Me a Hug! has the added benefit of showing young children various ways to communicate with peers and adults. For toddlers, engaging book listeners in mimicking the “acknowledgment” gestures in the book is fun. Learning to wave, smile, give fist bumps and high fives, use American Sign Language to say “hi,” and more make the reading experience physically interactive. And there may be gestures portrayed in the book that some children might not like, which present an opportunity for an additional conversation about consent.
Preschool children can actually practice using “I” statements that communicate how they want others to say “hello.” A group of children can practice this like they would a “Simon Says” game with the child in the center using “I (Susie) like fist bumps” with the other children making the fist-bump gesture. Preschool children can also stand or sit with a partner to share how they want to be greeted. Partners can rotate so that children can experience the fact that their peers have different preferences that can and should be respected.
More Information and Resources for Please Don’t Give Me a Hug!
Star Bright Books (SBB) published an excellent article about how to teach children body autonomy and consent. The article includes interior illustrations from the book that show how caring gestures are portrayed. SBB also published an artist spotlight interview with me about this book and writing for children.
Important side note: This story was first published as a donation on the Make Way for Books app. Thank you to MWFB for your vital early childhood education work in the greater Tucson community and for granting SBB and me permission to publish the board book.
Illustrator Estelle Corke, Star Bright Books, and I hope you will share Please Don’t Give Me a Hug! with the children in your care. Have fun practicing and talking about the gestures. Help young children understand their right to consent as they develop their social emotional life skills and think about how you, an adult, can make sure that you are respecting children’s body autonomy.