In a time when, thankfully, issues like bodily autonomy, consent, and equality are finally getting the attention they deserve, it can be difficult to figure out how to express these concepts to a young child. One of the hardest parts of being a parent is the process of figuring out what works best for you and your family in terms of keeping an open line of communication between you and your children. This can be even more complicated when your kids are especially young. So what are some ways to teach consent to your toddler before they're even old enough to explain it?
As the mother of a 2-year-old son, I feel a particularly strong sense of responsibility to make sure that he becomes the type of person that would step up if he saw misogynistic behavior or sexual assault. I specifically remember making a promise to my friends who had daughters that their girls would not have to be afraid of or worry about my son. He wouldn't be "that" guy. But I still struggle sometimes with finding the right words to explain consent to him. If you have these same issues, then check out this advice from parenting experts, psychologists, and even what I've found has worked with my own toddler.
I've found that the key to conveying the complex subject of consent to a toddler is to take anything of a sexual nature out of the equation. By doing little role-playing exercises with my son, I would set up scenarios where one person had a toy that the other one wanted. The second person couldn't just take the toy from them because that would be wrong. So I taught him about asking permission and gradually expanded that beyond just sharing items during playtime and into the realm of physical touch. He's at an age now where the other children in his class are all asking questions and are potty training. So it's natural for them to be curious, but I made sure my son knew it was not OK to touch or be touched without asking permission.
Carol Horton, a Texas psychotherapist who has worked extensively with children who are the survivors of abuse or witnesses of domestic violence, told The Washington Post, "parents can model consent and boundaries for small children by respecting their personhood . . . parents can give even small children the opportunity to make choices and have opinions. ‘It’s time to go to bed now. Would you rather wear your monkey pajamas or your princess nightgown?’"
It would be almost hypocritical to teach your child about the importance of listening to other people, and then not listen to your child when they express they don't want to be touched. "You know how little kids like to be tickled? If a kid says stop, even if they’re laughing, the best thing you can do as an adult is stop," Debra Herbenick, a sexual health educator at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, told The New York Times. "What that teaches them when they’re 2 or 3 or 4 is that they have control over their own body."
One of the biggest issues I hear about from my fellow parenting friends is how to handle when Grandma wants a hug but their child doesn't want to give one. The Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs recently published an article on the topic of explaining autonomy and consent to young children where they advised, "resisting the natural urge to insist your kid hug or kiss someone can be a challenge given cultural or societal norms of respect and politeness, yet is an important building block of affirmative consent."
One of the key components to understanding "no means no," is by having a fundamental understanding of and respect for someone else's wishes regarding their body. Again, you can take sex out the conversation and simply focus on teaching your child about the importance of empathy in a way that any toddler can comprehend. "Empathy is learned," Lawrence Kutner, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School, wrote in an article for Psych Central. "If your 3-year-old cries out, 'Look at the fat lady!' quietly and gently explain why saying that may make the woman feel bad. Ask him if he’s ever felt bad because of something a person said."
Even though my son is only a toddler, he soaks up everything he sees and hears around him. He's also verbal now, too, and can hold a pretty coherent conversation with you. So one of the things I have told him is that we don't keep secrets and if anyone — adult, teacher, friend, stranger, doctor, etc. — tells him he needs to keep something a secret, he is immediately supposed find me or a trusted adult and tell them. He still has his privacy, though, and I've made sure to differentiate between secrets and privacy. He is allowed to have quiet time by himself and make art projects that will later be a surprise for me, but he knows that there is no space for secrets in our family.
One of the first things I was taught in a mandatory class for my job working with developmentally delayed children was that predators will rely on children not knowing the correct terms for their body parts and will use that as a way to either "teach" them or hope they won't be able to properly convey where they were touched. This sentiment is echoed by Laura Palumbo, a prevention specialist with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), who told The Atlantic, "teaching children anatomically correct terms promotes positive body image, self confidence, and parent-child communication; discourages perpetrators; and, in the event of abuse, helps children and adults navigate the disclosure and forensic interview process."
It may sound cliche, but I have used a stuffed animal with my son before to act out emotions and their appropriate responses. If Bradley Bear is sad, for instance, my son's instinct is to hug and comfort him. Yet I remind him that, even if someone looks sad, you still need to ask if you can hug them first. "Encourage children to read facial expressions and body language: scared, happy, sad, frustrated, angry and more," Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist who teaches at Georgetown University, wrote on Psychology Today. "Charade-style guessing games with expressions are a great way to teach children how to read body language."
Recently, my son asked if he could have one of my chips during lunch. I said "yes." I went to refill his sippy cup only to come back and find he had eaten all of my chips. In his defense, he was confused because I did, in fact, say "yes." I used this as a teaching opportunity and explained that "yes" is not a "always and forever" word. Horton reiterated in The Washington Post, "it’s important to explain to children that even in the middle of a physical encounter, consent can be removed, and consenting to one form of physical contact does not automatically mean that you have consented to every physical action."