Rightfully, there is a lot of discussion happening in Australian schools right now about the concept of so-called “consent”. It’s great that there is an elevated focus on respectful engagement in relationships – at all levels. And we absolutely need to teach our youth about healthy sexual behaviour.
But in a conversation with our students where language matters, “consent” can feel like a legalistic term that is potentially (unwittingly?) reinforcing an unhealthy power dynamic. One person giving permission for the other to do something to them. Parents give “consent” for teachers to take students on a field trip. Patients give “consent” for a surgeon to operate on them.
Maybe, in these educative conversations with children about physical intimacy – conversations that are about helping them understand power and control – we might use more equalising terms like “mutual agreement” and “shared decisions” instead.
With rather than to.
The children we teach are young – new to the world. But they have brains that are running two-million-year-old software.
Long before we had written or even spoken language, our ancestors relied on emotional interaction, eye contact, posture, facial expression, and body language to communicate and to catalyse and sustain our connection to our tribe.
These days, we have written and spoken language to help shape our students’ learning and their educational environment. But our students’ sense of safety, connection, and their emotional, physical and neurological state remain heavily affected by our ancient programming that instinctively scans more primeval forms of communication.
We should be careful, planned and deliberate with our words. They matter.
And so do all the many other forms of communication at our disposal.
Language, it seems, is not entirely necessary for conscious thought. We can think about the taste of toothpaste, or the shape of a balloon without needing to access language.
But imagine trying to understand racism or potential or electricity without language.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austrian philosopher, wrote in 1922 that: “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind.” As we expand our vocabulary, we develop more nuanced ways of understanding the world and of understanding each other.
And this, in part, is why the teaching of wellbeing science to students is so important. When they learn, for example, that “serenity” is one of the most commonly experienced human emotions, or that “prudence” and “zest” are two universal strengths of character, students perceive their world differently. And when have access to the language of “negativity bias” and “emotional contagion” they gain a way to view, process, and talk about their social environment.
There are many significant benefits of placing wellbeing science at the heart of education, but the development of wellbeing literacy throughout a school community may be the most transformational element of all.