Written by DiveThru Team
Reviewed by Natalie Asayag MSW, LCSW
8 Ways To Teach Consent At An Early Age
Published Dec 21st, 2020 & updated on Mar 20th, 2021
Don’t you wish that you had been given an option to simply high-five your mom’s great-great-uncle at that family reunion when you were 6? Instead, your mom made you go in for a hug, and it felt wrong and weird. After all, you had just met this person! Now, years later, you’re thinking that might’ve been the perfect situation to teach consent.
This scene is alllll too familiar for many of us. We’re taught that as a child, we should hug and kiss relatives that we don’t really know (or like) to make them happy, not us. Even though this forced hug might have seemed like an innocent interaction, it taught us that we didn’t have autonomy over our body and that what we were comfortable with didn’t really matter. This idea can follow us into adulthood when we start putting other people’s feelings before ours in order to be polite.
You might think that you have total control over your body but many of us (particularly women) still feel obligated to allow unwanted physical touch from others. It’s as though there is an unspoken rule that says other people are allowed to touch us and we shouldn’t be upset by it. It sucks! But now you’re a parent and you’re wondering if there is a way to change that experience for your kids. You might be asking yourself, when is the right time to teach your kids about how they can choose what happens to their bodies?
Teaching consent to children is overwhelming and parents struggle knowing where to start. Adults typically view the concept of consent as a sober and enthusiastic YES before getting down and doing the dirty. But consent isn’t always just about sex. We can teach kids from an early age that consent and setting boundaries, like how to say no, are important and necessary so that physical touch can happen in appropriate ways.
1. Body Literacy
Call it what it is. If it’s a toe, it’s a toe. If it’s a knee, it’s a knee. And a vagina, is a vagina. Giving anatomically correct names to body parts can help children become more comfortable in their own skin and encourages them not to feel shame about their own bodies and body parts. It also creates an open door to talk about bodies in case something was to ever happen to your child. Equipping them with this bodily vocabulary can then help identify where they were touched, by who, and how it made them feel.
This can also help them identify acceptable places on where to touch others. If your child is play-wrestling, they’ll know what parts of another person’s body are and aren’t ok to grab, especially without consent.
2. Model Consent
Even if you and your partner have an understanding that taking a bite of their food or a drink from their glass is ok between the two of you, it’s good to model consent even in these small ways. So, you can ask your partner, “Hey, can I have some of your water?” or, “Can I have a kiss?”
Tiny interactions like this will show your child that consent is necessary at ALL times and for ALL things. It reinforces the concept of consent and also helps them understand that they can’t just take other people’s things when they want.
3. Their Body, Their Choice
When it’s safe for your child, let them choose what to do with their body! Reinforce this idea that they have a right and an ability to choose what happens to them and that the choices they make matter.
This could mean your kid gets to choose whether or not to hug their great-great-aunt, or this might mean letting them choose to quickly run to the car in the winter without their coat on. Something as little as asking them if they want the blue sweater or the green sweater that morning gives them an option to choose how they express themselves that day, and it also encourages them to build a healthy sense of self.
Obviously, letting them run away and go for an adventure during a parade isn’t in their best interest and it’s definitely not safe to let them choose in that situation, but when you think they can make a choice about their body, let them do it!
4. Give Them Options
If your kiddo does need a coat but doesn’t want to wear one, give them choices! Let them decide. Even though they might need a coat, they’re still making a choice about what goes on their body.
If you have a family member who wants to give them a big hug and a kiss goodbye, don’t force your kid into giving physical affection they aren’t comfortable with. Give them a choice of a greeting or farewell. You can say something like “Do you want to give Auntie Diane knuckles, a high-five, or a hug?”
All of these still show appreciation for the adult, but it allows your kid to choose how closely they want to interact with them.
Giving your kid these options also shows the adult that consent with children is important and that their boundaries need to be respected. Some people might get mad that you’re not making your kid hug them, but to be honest, if they’re being that weird about not hugging a child, you probably don’t want them touching your kid anyway.
If this adult does get mad or upset, just explain your motivation for this exercise and that you’re teaching your child consent. Hopefully, this will help them understand where you’re coming from.
5. Teach Empathy
Trying to tell a child to put themselves into someone else’s shoes can be a hard concept to teach. But teaching your kid to empathize with others will help them see other people’s boundaries.
Ask your kid something along the lines of, “Would you like ___ if it was done to you?”
This is a great starting point for helping your kid understand that their actions impact others and how they feel. This empathy can help your kid interact with kindness and consideration towards others.
6. “No” Comes In All Shapes And Sizes
Teach your kid how to recognize no. It’s not always a direct statement like “No!” Being able to recognize the indirect and nonverbal ways someone communicates this “no” is SOOO important. “No” can look like silence or an “I don’t know…” Sometimes it can only be seen in someone’s face and body language.
Teach your kids to look for an excited and enthusiastic yes. If there isn’t one, help them understand why it’s a no.
7. Make It Fun
Make a game out of it! An easy way to teach consent is with a tickle game. Tickle your kids until they say “Stop!” then freeze. Start being the tickle monster again only when they say so! You should make sure that you ask your kid’s permission to play this game to help reinforce the concept of consent. Also, make sure that only safe and appropriate body parts are allowed to be tickled during the tickle game.
Sometimes kids can say “no” or “stop” in a playful way, but this can often be part of the game. Stop the tickling or the playing even when they say these words while laughing and having a good time! This shows that their words matter and that they should have a voice in any situation.
This is a really easy and positive way to show your child that their boundaries matter and that they should be respected at any age!
8. Having A Crush Doesn’t Excuse Violating Boundaries
Remember when Gilbert pulls Anne’s hair in Anne of Green Gables? He did this because he had a crush on her. Even though they grow up together and eventually fall in love, this doesn’t excuse him hurting Anne.
How many times have you heard someone say, “that just means they like you,” in response to nastiness from one kid to another? That’s not a good lesson to teach because it perpetuates the idea that your child’s feelings don’t matter and that casual violence is flattering.
As we grow older, we internalize that message and begin to believe that violence equals love. We want our kids to see love as a healthy, happy, and equal thing to engage in. We don’t want to associate love with anger or violence.
Just remember that as a parent, you still reserve the right to protect your kid. Grabbing them before they run into the street or making them hold your hand in the grocery store is still allowed (and necessary) because their safety is the most important thing. If your kid questions why this is ok, explain it to them.
Teaching your child how to express their own boundaries to others and to respect others’ will set them up for a fantastic life of kindness and consent. They’ll be telling you “no” in no time!