Consent. This is a word we hear about often but perhaps don’t think is relevant to young children. In fact, we may think that we don’t have to worry about teaching our children about consent until they are teenagers but now is the time to start. Starting to teach our young children about consent and what it means not only empowers them but can also help keep them safe.
Think back to your own childhood. What were the expectations around greeting family members when you attended a family event? If Great Aunt Myrtle requested a hug, did you have to give her one? What would the response be if you refused? How did you feel if you were forced? There can often be an expectation of greeting family members with a hug and/or a kiss in many families. However, forcing our children to comply with this type of expectation can do more harm than good.
According to Zero to Three, encounters like these “are an opportunity to teach children about body autonomy and consent. Though we often think of consent as a topic for the teenage years, we can build this understanding much earlier. Body autonomy is the idea that your body belongs to you, and you are in charge of it. This is an empowering message that helps children protect themselves from unwanted touch at any age.” There are many steps parents can take to teach their children about both body autonomy and consent.
Be respectful of their bodies. Tell your child what you are going to do before you do it. Tell your child, “I am going to help you get dressed,” before you take off their clothes.
Use the correct names for body parts. It is important that children know the proper names for all their body parts. For some of us, this is easy to do when we are talking about eyes, ears, toes, legs, etc. It can become uncomfortable when we start discussing private parts. This practice led to some interesting conversations when my children were young. They would name everyone they knew and ask who had a penis and who had a vagina. Fortunately, these conversations usually happened during bath time and not in public. Teaching children the proper names for body parts helps them talk to us about health issues if something doesn’t feel right or hurts. It also helps children know what to say if they ever are touched inappropriately.
You can say no, and it means no. It is important for kids to know that if they say no to something people will respect that no. It is equally important for kids to know they need to stop if someone else tells them no. Teach your child to say no or stop if they don’t like something or have had enough of something like hugs, tickles, or kisses. I am well aware that there are times when your child may say no to something, but it still needs to happen. Kids need to be buckled into their car seats, take a bath, get their diapers changed, and go to bed. When these types of situations arise, recognize your child doesn’t want to do it and then offer them some choices about how it gets done. “I see you don’t want to get into your car seat. Do you want me to lift you in or do you want to climb in?” This still gives your child some autonomy and power but helps get the necessary task completed.
Teach your child to ask permission. Kids are familiar with the concept of asking permission. They know they are supposed to ask before they take a toy from another child or get a snack from the cupboard. This same concept can be used to teach children the concept of consent. People should ask them for permission before they do something to them. And our kids should ask permission too! A great book to help illustrate this is Don’t Touch My Hair by Sharee Miller. Here is a link to a read-aloud for you and your child to enjoy.
Offer your child choices about how to greet people. Ask your child if they would like to give grandma a hug, a high five, or a wave to say hello. This helps your child know they have a choice about whether they are touched or not.
Be your child’s voice. Say things to family or friends like, “It looks like she might need a little time to warm up. Maybe she will give you a hug later.”
Prepare your child ahead of time. If you know that great grandma will want to give your child a hug, talk about it before the visit. Let your child know that great grandma will want a hug and ask them if they will feel comfortable. You can also ask them if they would like to give a hug with you or on their own. Of course, if your child is completely uncomfortable giving a hug, by themselves or with you, do not force them to do it.
Remember to honor your traditions and teach your child about them. Many cultures or families have specific ways of greeting one another. Be sure to explain these traditions to your child and model them. In many cases, your child will follow your lead and join in the traditional way of greeting other people.
The idea of teaching consent can feel overwhelming to parents. Starting when your child is young can help make this feel less daunting. It also helps your child know they are in charge of their body and responsible for their own actions. As your child grows, they will already be well versed in the idea of consent helping them protect and respect themselves and others.