Start Them Young: Teaching Consent
If we wait to bring up the topic until kids are sexually active, it is too late. Whether they grow up with empathy or entitlement, with respect or toxicity, begins on Day One.
In the #MeToo era, consent has become a paramount discussion, and thank goodness for that. But while we tend to think about it primarily in the realm of sexual harassment and assault, it is more generally a way to develop and maintain healthy relationships and self-confidence.
If we wait to bring up the topic until kids are sexually active, it is too late. Whether they grow up with empathy or entitlement, with respect or toxicity, begins on Day One. It is in how kids see others treated, in how they are taught to treat others, and how they are taught to advocate for themselves.
When my daughter was a toddler, we had a checkup and the doctor explained he was going to examine past her underwear, making a point that she had to hear me say it was okay with me that he was doing it. I replied, “yes, if it’s okay with her.”
Consent is more than a buzzword—it is a parenting philosophy. Here are some ways to start the conversation early.
Birth to Toddler
If you think about it, the road to understanding consent is empathy. Babies have no concept of the wants or needs of others, but as they grow into toddlers and parallel play becomes playing together, they begin to navigate that space.
As Daniel Tiger sings, “think about how someone else is feeling!” Does your friend want to be hugged, even though you think hugs are nice? What is her face saying? Does she look happy, or uncomfortable? Did your friend say to stop tickling him, even though he is laughing (tickling is a real consent landmine)?
As your babies gain awareness of their own bodies—and begin potty training—use the anatomically correct words for their private parts. “Vagina” and “penis” are not bad words!
Work on little choices that relate to control over their own bodies. Does that shirt feel comfortable? Do they want to wear a dress? While you need to make sure their clothes are clean and weather-appropriate, give them some freedom in this area (beyond those two rules).
Speaking of autonomy over their bodies, tell them that they never have to hug or kiss a family member if they don’t want to. At the same time, discourage family members from acting sad and making your kids feel guilty for saying no.
Preschool through Lower School
As kids become more verbal and their minds become more developed, you can start having more direct conversations about consent, actually giving it a name. You can use examples in everyday life, and even look to favorite stories for inspiration.
“It don’t take a word, not a single word. Go on and kiss the girl.”
–The Little Mermaid, 1989
“I could kiss you. I could. I mean, I’d like to. I—may I? We me? I mean, may we?”
Beginning school brings a lot more relationships to navigate. So many kids are excited to make friends, and often lean into being people pleasers (especially little girls). You can’t blame them—we tell them they have to share when they may feel even more possessive over their favorite doll as they do over their own body, and it can feel very confusing what the boundaries are.
Because little kids are so often entreated to “be good” and “be nice” and “get along,” teaching them to stand up for themselves is tricky. Try to give them concrete examples of what kinds of things to say to friends that clearly express “no” without being unnecessarily cold or unkind. Simple phrases like “I don’t like that” or “I don’t want a hug right now, you can ask me later” can diffuse a situation.
At the same time, teach your kids to be receptive and respectful when their friends are the ones saying “stop,” and to understand that “I don’t want a hug” does not mean “I don’t want to be friends.”
And as they begin to spend most of their waking hours in school rather than home, it is important to explain how and where it is okay for other trusted adults to touch them. Preschoolers still need help with the bathroom, so differentiating between “she touched me on the outside with toilet paper” versus sexual abuse is a crucial distinction.
Help them feel safe in telling you if something happens, or if they feel uncomfortable. Avoid ever making things a “secret” (and differentiate between a “surprise”), and explain that no one should ever ask them to keep a secret, especially from their parents. Finally, assure them that you will never be mad at them for opening up—it is never their fault, but victims of abuse often feel ashamed, guilty, and withdrawn.
As with so many Big Topics, consent is an ongoing lesson. We must model it in our own relationships, honor our children’s feelings, and hope to create a better generation as our little ones grow.