How a picture book about a cat could help teach children about consent and boundaries
How do we teach young children about consent and boundaries?
Picture book Lulu Gets a Cat - by Anna McQuinn and illustrator Rosalind Beardshaw - might be able to help, as Anna explains below...
Watching scenes from the Brett Kavanaugh Senate hearings at the end of last year was upsetting. One of the things that most saddened me in the weeks afterwards was hearing the many reports that university students are most likely to experience sexual assault in the first eight weeks of their courses. Then we heard demands for more education, with many colleges adding talks on consent to their orientation programmes.
But surely that's too late? Aren't we getting something terribly wrong as a society, as parents, and as educators if young (mostly) men, all educated to such a level that they are eligible for university, are showing up on week one with such a sense of entitlement that they are assaulting their peers?
None of these young men were born this way, so what happened to them along the way to give them such a sense of entitlement? Surely that learning can't be undone in a few hours of orientation?
Starting the discussions early
I followed various debates and read interesting articles - you'll find some of them below. And I began to realise that perhaps one of the biggest mistakes we are making is linking consent and sex, thus limiting education around consent to sex education.
This narrows the focus and worse, it postpones difficult conversations until children are older - by which time they may have internalised damaging attitudes to themselves and others.
On the other hand, if we break the link between consent and sex, we can leave behind uncomfortable conversations and focus on the core issue. Stripped of sexual connotations, we can also look the different aspects of this issue in the face.
One particular aspects concern me. When the focus of our consent education is on preventing children from being abused, we mostly think of the perpetrators as adults and the victims as children. So, our focus is often (quite rightly) on empowering children to say no to adults.
But this can leave unaddressed any education on how not to become the aggressor – something that does little to address the fact that many children are subject to unwanted touch from their peers. It also does not do enough to prevent today's children from becoming tomorrow's aggressors – if we only focus on a child's right to say no, we leave out the important lessons that would teach children about waiting for an enthusiastic yes.
With most issues I struggle with, the answer is usually to start with 3-year-olds and use a picture book! This is no exception... so here's my suggestion for teaching consent using Lulu Gets a Cat.
How Lulu Gets a Cat can get us talking about consent
In Lulu Gets a Cat we meet Lulu, who is obsessed with cats and really wants a real one. Her mother is not convinced - well, her mother is convinced that she will be the one looking after the little animal!
But Lulu is never one to be put off, so she and her mother read stories about cats and books about caring for them. Lulu has a sticker chart to log caring duties which she fills in, and eventually Mummy is persuaded.
Together they research adoption and make an appointment with the local shelter. There, Lulu is given a choice of three suitable cats but before she can choose, one little cat chooses her. How adorable!
At this point any 3-year-old would expect to hug the cat and take it home. But worker Jeremy explains that the little cat will find the change traumatic, and he gives Lulu a list of things she needs to do to prepare for the cat's arrival.
When everything is ready and Lulu returns to the shelter to collect her cat, she goes with a lovely sense of enthusiasm – something she likely expects the little cat to reciprocate.
But we can see that, on the contrary, the little cat is still scared. Jeremy uses her own blanket and Lulu reassures her - then Lulu is free to take her home.
Once at home, one can imagine that any 3-year-old would immediately want to cuddle the new arrival – what young child doesn't respond to a small animal with affection? It's a natural and warm response.
Here, however, the little cat is really scared in her new surroundings – something we can clearly see in her body language.
Happily, because of her research, Lulu knows this. So, even though it is obviously hard to do, she holds herself back and puts the needs of the little cat before her own.
This for me is the most powerful spread in the book. It's the one I'm most proud of and the one I'm most grateful to the illustrator, Rosalind Beardshaw, for capturing so beautifully.
It shows an extremely complex moment – Lulu is full of delight at the long-awaited arrival of her new cat, and naturally wants to play and cuddle. And there's nothing at all wrong with those instincts – they are kind, nurturing ones. But we can see from the little cat's body language that she wouldn't like it – not yet, anyway. And we see from Lulu's body language how hard it is for her too.
This spread therefore provides a perfect opportunity to talk about autonomy and boundaries, about comfort and physical interactions, and about mutual respect and putting another's needs before our own.
In the following pages, Lulu gradually builds her relationship with her new cat. She makes her friend Tayo wait before he visits, and he is rewarded with a fun afternoon playing with Lulu and the little cat.
Lulu is rewarded too – by the deep trust and love that her little cat has developed for her. This is enthusiastic consent! Both cat and child are ready and want to share the affection and snuggles.
Lulu's insights into her cats needs came from her reading and research. So it seemed appropriate to me to end the story with Lulu now reading to her new friend...
And I hope the book shows that we can have a meaningful conversation about consent without ever talking about inappropriate touching or private parts – because actually bodily autonomy and respect isn't limited to sex.
But helping children to think about another's needs - which might be different from their own - will lay a solid foundation for discussing such issues in the future.
Articles about teaching consent in the early years
Linking conversations about consent to sex narrows the focus and worse...