As a parent to a 2-year-old, I am beginning to teach my daughter about consent. For instance, my husband and I don’t force her to give hugs when she appears uncomfortable and we have begun to discuss how to explain that her private parts are just that — private. But my friend who is navigating the same territory with her 3-year-old recently told me a story where her daughter shouted “MY BODY!” as a protest to bath time, leaving both of us curious about how to teach your kid consent and still get them in the damn tub. After all, a smelly kid can’t be the only way to teach this lesson, right?
“It's important to start laying the foundations for understanding bodily autonomy and consent while kids are small,” Jill Whitney, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Connecticut and blogger at Keep The Talk Going, tells Romper in an email interview. “Teaching kids that their body is their own and they can control who touches it, when, and how, makes them less vulnerable to child sex abuse when they're young, and respectful, self-advocating sexual partners when they grow up.”
But that doesn't mean kids can veto having their teeth brushed, taking a bath, or letting a doctor check them, Whitney says. “Caring for their bodies, then teaching kids to care for their own bodies, is part of raising them to be adults, at which point they understand more and can make their own choices.”
Laurie Wolk, parenting coach and author of the new book Girls Just Want to Have Likes: How to Raise Confident Girls in the Face of Social Media Madness, agrees, adding that the younger children are, the more they will get stuck in the “my body” generalizations.
"When this happens, it’s an opportunity to reinforce the reasoning and the important message behind consent," she tells Romper in an email interview. "Keep giving them real life examples to help them decode the situations. For example, who is trying to touch them and why? A doctor needs to examine you, a parent needs to make sure you are clean. If you’re ever uncomfortable with the way you are being touched — even if it’s a doctor or parent — then you speak up."
That being said, parents should pause when children express discontent with a particular situation, says Jett Bachman, a youth educator at New York-based Day One, an organization that serves as a resource on dating abuse and domestic violence among youth. “As with anything consent-related, committing to open, honest, and consistent communication is of the utmost importance here,” they tell Romper in an email interview.
“It can feel challenging to balance the desire to send young children positive messages around consent and their body autonomy with the fact that they still need adult guidance and assistance with many daily tasks and survival," Bachman says. “If a child is being asked to do something but doesn't want to, it is important that adults take their reservations/refusals seriously, ask about/listen to their concerns, and explain why exactly it is important that they do what is being asked of them.”
Bachman explains that with very young children who are not yet expressing themselves with many — or any — words, this will look slightly different, but should still include the same reflection and explanation process on the part of the adult, like giving a step-by-step explanation while changing a child’s diaper.
“Consent is not about a lack of rules. In fact, establishing rules and boundaries creates a necessary foundation for practicing consent,” they say.
Kate Orson, author of Tears Heal: How to Listen to Our Children, says that parents should also keep in mind that often children will say “no” to something like a bath as a way of communicating upset feelings that get in the way of being able to cooperate.
“It's not that deep down there's anything that bad about taking a bath, it's just that they may use this as trigger to say no and 'tell' us that they are not feeling good,” she says. Orson recommends her technique of moving in close to a child, offering eye contact and connection, and gently setting the limit by telling them they need to take a bath.
“It might trigger a meltdown, which is actually a healthy process for letting go of feelings,” she says. “If we can stay with them during the upset, offer hugs, and stay calm, then when children have let go of the feelings getting in the way of cooperation, they will most likely be able to think more clearly and go into the bath willingly.”
Don't be surprised, Whitney says, if as your child gets older they try to hone their debating skills. "My son did — he hated brushing his teeth. But it's fine to say, 'Enough is enough. I've heard you and I understand your perspective, but I disagree. Baths are important,'" she says. "Stay confident that you're being a good parent by standing by what you know is right for your kids."
Wolk says it's also important to discuss safety rules in general. "Keeping yourself safe is a theme throughout a child’s entire life, changing through different life stages," she says, adding that explaining to children why certain rules are meant to keep them safe will help them understand complex things, such as consent. "Research has shown that when someone understands the reasoning behind something and physically practices doing it (e.g. saying 'no I don’t want to go'), then it becomes an automatic reflex. This is not just for consent, but all potentially harmful activities — playing with fire, crossing the street, and as they get older things such as staying safe on social media, drinking, and sex."
Bachman adds that modeling consent does not mean "allowing a child to eat ice cream for every meal if they declare that's what they want.
"It means being ready to explain the importance of respecting and taking care of our bodies by eating the nutrients we need — and how few of those nutrient needs are met by ice cream," they says. "It means reminding children that we care about their happiness and safety and consistently demonstrating to them that our rules reflect those values."
Because their safety and happiness — not to mention cleanliness — is what this is all about, right?
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