How do you discuss consent with children, and at what age do you start? Many parents find consent an uncomfortable topic and metaphorically gasp at the idea of discussing anything remotely related to sex with their young children. But what most parents don't realize is that consent isn't just about sex. Instead, it's about giving and receiving permission for contact with another person. So when moms share how they discuss consent with their children they aren't just talking about sexual advances, they are referring to an array of physical contact.
According to Joanna Schroeder, editor and co-author of Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21, it's never too early to talk about consent with children. Teaching consent to children is crucial, and kids should know from the very beginning that no one is allowed to violate their personhood and push their boundaries. I started teaching my children consent from the moment I realized they were able to understand personal space. It's important to teach kids to empower their body autonomy.
I start my conversation with my children when they are toddlers by telling them they are not obligated to hug or kiss anyone, including family members. I make sure to make it a point to tell my family members, in front of my children, that my kids will hug them when and if they feel comfortable doing so. I model consent by asking them for hugs and kisses and showing them it's completely acceptable to say no. I remind them often that no one reserves the right to their affection and that no one owes their affection to them. I tell my children to respect their own bodies and the bodies of others. I instruct them to ask permission before roughhousing with their friends. I also teach my children the proper names for their body parts and don't use euphemisms. I teach them consent because it is important to start young rather than regret your inactions later.
I'm not alone, either. Parents are finding the time and vernacular to speak with their children about consent, and at an early age. So with that in mind, here's how the following moms discuss the subject with their kids:
"I have two boys, ages 4 and 8. At the preschool/kindergarten age, mostly what I talk about with my kids is that you have control over your own body, and nobody gets to touch it unless you give them permission. In the same way, it's not OK for you to touch someone else if they tell you no, and if you are playing with someone and they suddenly tell you 'no!' that means you need to be hands-off.
The one book I've found really useful for this is Tickle! by Leslie Patricelli. It's a board book about a toddler getting tickled by his family, but there is one page where he yells 'STOP!' and everyone immediately stops and backs off. This is a great way to discuss how consent can be given and then taken away.
With my 8-year-old, the conversation has gotten more nuanced. I am particularly conscious of talking this over with him because he has ADHD and frequently gets so caught up in whatever he is doing, so he has a hard time switching gears. I talk a lot with him about how he needs to be extra careful that other people are also OK with what he's doing, specifically because he personally has a hard time reading others and understanding when they are no longer having fun. I talk about how important it is for him to learn to do this now, especially with girls, because later on the consequences will be much higher. He knows what sex is, so I have told him in general terms about rape, and how it's often perpetrated by men against women, and because this is a thing that happens he needs to learn how to treat women in a way that makes them know they are safe. We talk about how just because you don't mean to hurt or threaten someone doesn't mean it can't happen by accident. Overall, it's just sort of an ongoing conversation. I don't want to make him feel bad or ashamed when he slips up, so I emphasize that he is only 8 and he is still learning, so it is OK to make mistakes; just like anything else, he needs to learn from his mistakes and try to do better next time.
I think another thing that really helps both of my kids is martial arts, where they really learn to handle their own bodies and what appropriate contact at appropriate times truly means. They are not allowed to just tackle each other; they have to both agree to spar, and nobody is forced to spar with anyone else. And when someone taps out, you stop immediately, period, no question."
"There's a 'Consent for Kids' video on YouTube that I've watched with my son. We also say 'my body my choice' and talk about having consent when touching other peoples bodies in any way. We use opportunities when around family (such as hugging cousins goodbye) to set examples by asking the children in the family if they want a hug, and respecting their wishes if they say no. If children start to rough house we encourage them to use their words to express themselves. We also encourage them to be clear and say 'that is my body and you may not touch it.'
Sometimes, I tell my son I don't want to hug or have him lay on me because it is important to know that consent is a case by case thing. Just because someone wanted a hug yesterday doesn't mean you can give them a hug today. Sometimes, I'll ask him if he has consent, for instance if he just jumps on me I'll ask if he has consent. He knows to back up and ask for a hug if that's what he was looking for. Sometimes I create opportunities to remind my son to respect other people's body, and that he has the choice who touches his body. Sometimes opportunities for these lessons present themselves when we have time with friends or family.
Either way, I believe learning about respect and consent is very important so that my son has respect for other people and the courage to demand respect for himself and his body as well. Consent is about respecting the person's entire body, not just about sex. Do you want a hug? Can grandma give you a kiss goodbye? Does your cousin want you to push them on the swing? Even consenting to play a physical game with the cousins (super heroes, wrestling, football) versus a non-contact activity, such as building with legos. Teaching children to respect a persons entire body now will certainly help them to be able to use those skills and use that understanding of 'consent' in sexual situations. I want my son to know he has the right to say 'no, you can't touch me' and have enough respect not to touch any one who doesn't want to be touched. I don't care if it's an arm or a 'private part,' their body is their body and no one else may touch it without consent."
"We have recently had to discuss the absence of a response to a question and how that does not mean yes. Also, most of these instances aren't directly sexual but constant open communication and reinforcing 'my body my choice' will translate into sexual situations in the future."
"My son is very affectionate and he loves hugging his friends at school before I pick him up. I watch him do so and I can see some kids do not want to be hugged. I've spoken to him about it numerous times and have reminded him to ask for hugs before giving them. He has gotten better, but because he is only 3, it will probably take a few more times for him to fully understand."
"I basically teach my kids empathy because I think it is important when teaching consent. Basically, I want my kids to know why consent is important and I explain that if they don't want someone to do something to them that makes them feel uncomfortable, then they shouldn't do that same thing to someone else. I ask them, 'How would you feel if someone tackled you without your permission?' We discuss these things a lot. I have two boys, so I want to make sure they never get themselves into trouble and don't cause harm to anyone else."
"I tell my pre-schooler to keep his hands to himself and that no one is allowed to touch his privates. My older daughter knows that if she tells someone no and they try to pressure her in any situation, she should scream and call for help."
"My approach is to tell my son, who is 3, that no one can do anything to his body that he doesn't want unless it's something we say is needed for his health and safety (like vaccines and brushing his teeth), and he has to respect what other people want for their bodies, too. He has shown that he understands by doing things like asking before he hugs people, and he has a strong sense that he can say no to things like tickling or affection from distant family. He knows he'll be listened to and that we'll step in if an adult isn't listening to his boundaries."
"I taught them to say, 'It's my body I get to choose' when they were 2. I also model the same. I don't like anyone touching my neck, and they knew from the time they were babies not to do that. Sometimes, it would hurt their feelings as they got older and I never apologized. When they would wrestle around, it was tricky to know if they were joking or not if someone said stop. I taught them to scream, 'I don't like this game,' though, it was much more empowering and the other kids new to stop instantly if they heard that. (Of course they know stop means stop, but with siblings it is a little trickier.)"
"We are all about ‘my body, my choice’ here, whether it’s tickling or hugging or anything. And also, ‘it’s not fun unless everyone is having a good time.' I make sure I am not afraid to tell my very affectionate 6 year old, ‘I love you very much but I’m not in the mood for hugs’ when I’m not feeling it."
"My little one knows her 'no' will be respected, and if it’s not that she can get louder and bold with it, because we’ve been practicing. Saying no is hard. When we tickle, hug, kiss, or anything else requiring contact, we immediately stop at her 'no.' If friends or relatives get offended by her wave as opposed to hug, we basically tell them to get over it. She’s nearly 3 now, and has lately been informing folks who get too close that it’s her 'whole body' and to 'lay off.' I couldn’t be more proud."
"We have practiced consent since birth. My 4-year-old confidently tells me ‘no hugs or kisses, thanks Mum,’ because we have always asked and respected no. I wish I got more kisses and cuddles but when she initiates them I know they’re real and genuine, not forced."
"The big thing I'm working on with my kids is manners. I have worked hard with them to have good manners, say please, excuse me, etc. But, I am working with them now (after teaching them that 'respect my body' and 'my body, my rules' are the rules for them and everyone) to enforce that if someone is doing something to your body that you don't like, you do not, under any circumstances, have to be polite or use nice words. It's slow going, because please, thank you, excuse me, etc are a big deal in my house, but they are really starting to get it. I also say it frequently in front of other adults."
"We tell our boys that no one is allowed to touch their bodies without their permission, (even doctors and even us) and we play with them and we tickle or wrestle or whatever, the moment they say stop, we stop."
"We do 'my body, my choice,' 'stop means stop,' and 'no means no,' no forced affection and if it's not fun if everyone isn't having fun. To reinforce, I make sure if one is saying stop that we stop- no matter what. If someone is upset we stop because it means that person is having fun. I ask before touching (ie, tickling or checking private parts when they say they hurt). We do high fives if they don't want hugs."
"My son is autistic and has ADHD and he really struggles to respect people’s boundaries and finds it really hard to read other people. We ask for permission before we touch him. He chooses his own clothes (other than school uniform). We encourage him to ask before he approaches others although, but due to his impulsivity he often forgets. We teach him that it is only fun if everyone is enjoying it and only a joke if everyone is laughing. He knows he finds it hard to read people and that he needs to keep checking in with them. He is in puberty now and when we talk about sex we emphasize that the main reason people have sex is for mutual pleasure. That sex is not done to another but with another. Sex is only good if everyone enjoys it."
"I feel like we're only just starting out on this as an actual discussion as my son has just turned two, but right from the start we've avoided any sort of forced affection. Mostly he's barely acknowledged family when they arrive or go, so now that he's starting to hug people sometimes they're all very excited cause it's genuine. I'm starting to call nappy changes and teeth brushing 'non-negotiable' as he sometimes really objects to those but we have to get them done. But at all other times it's ;your body, your choice,' which I model too if he's touching me in a way I don't like."
"I live in Oklahoma City, in a place that is both midwest and southern, and where it is basically ingrained in us from birth to be 'polite' but being polite usually means 'give [insert distant relative here] a hug!' A hug that is not mutually consensual is not sincere yet it is still considered polite and makes the opposing person uncomfortable. We teach our three daughters that it is polite to greet someone with your words but you are in control of allowing someone to touch whether it be a kiss or a hug. Even with each other, they are never required to hug each other. Sometimes at bedtime my four year old gets upset when her younger sister does not want a hug. We explain to her that she is not entitled to that hug and needs to accept that the answer is no. Whether it be personal property or the person themselves, asking permission is always the first step; accepting the answer is step two. Teaching the concept of consent is as easy as this. And, it will make our conversation on different levels of consent in different situations much easier as our daughters grow."
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