Consent—also known as bodily consent—has been an important topic in the news over the last few years. Physical bullying, sexual abuse, and rape involve a lack of bodily consent. At what ages should parents be introducing this topic, and in what way? How can parents teach their children both to respect the bodily consent of others and to expect that their own be respected as well?
Bodily consent is not just part of of sexual education. "Consent" means "permission"—and the earlier parents begin teaching age-appropriate concepts around consent, the better. Many parents do partially address consent when discussing things from "no biting" to "no hitting" to "stranger danger". To give our kids a stronger respect for their own bodies and those of others, consent must be introduced in an age-appropriate manner, and constantly re-approached and discussed in more depth as kids get older. Respecting bodily consent should be a daily practice.
For all children, of any age, model consent in your daily interactions—with your children and with others. When bathing toddlers, tell them where you are washing and why; when giving medicine explain why and what it does. Though it might seem obvious, don't hit, don't grab, and don't yell in anger. If you and your children witness such behavior from others, be sure to discuss it and answer all of their questions. Ask them how they felt witnessing the situation, and how they think the victim might have felt. Ask what might be done, or what others did do, to help the victim.
Continue to model consent and introduce and expand topics around consent as kids start pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and the lower grades—teaching kids good behavior and skills is always ongoing. Some concepts and ideas can take time for kids to learn and remember, but just keep at it! Important concepts, ideas, and actions for younger grade schoolers include:
- Always use proper terms for body parts and functions. Answer any questions kids have matter of factly using these proper terms. Respect their feelings and encourage them to explain why they feel as they do. Do not tease or mock for their feelings, questions, or concerns. Respect their intuition regarding new people and places. Without judging, let them try to explain as best they can.
- Teach that their bodies belong to themselves, and they have autonomy over their bodies. Parents, doctors, perhaps sitters or the school nurse may need to help them stay clean and healthy, but these interactions are not time consuming nor are they ever secrets. In addition, do not bribe children with candy or prizes to do things they do not want to do, because this encourages them to give up their autonomy.
- Teach that others bodies belong to them. Thus, "I keep my hands to myself" and ask friends or siblings for permission to tickle, wrestle, hug, or kiss.
- Do not force them to hug/kiss anyone if they don’t want to. Use language giving alternatives, such as "You don’t want to kiss grandma goodbye? How about giving her a high five?" (Or fist bump, elbow bump, etc.)
- Teach them to respect the "no" and "stop" of others, and to expect their "no" and "stop" to be respected. If their "no" is ignored, they need to tell a teacher or parent, or the adult in charge. Be sure they know that you will believe them and help them as needed. This applies to sexual abuse as well as physical bullying.
- Help them learn to read others signals—this can be very hard for some kids, especially in the middle of a fun game that gets too rough.
- Allow them their personal boundaries, which will vary from child to child. While one child will not want to hold hands with another, the second child may be fine with it.
As kids move through grade school, consent-based topics will become more complicated. You may still be reminding some children to keep their hands to themselves in class, while they are asking about relationship and puberty topics.
- Answer all questions about body changes with honesty, directness, and correct terms. Topics might include losing teeth, physical growth, and puberty-related changes. Continue to show your willingness to talk about anything, with no judging or shaming.
- Don't tease for your child having boy/girl friends or for crushes they have (celebrity or otherwise). Be willing to talk if they want to or are willing to.
- Talk about and teach how their behavior affects others—being noisy, cutting in line, splashing at the pool, poking, tripping, etc. Discuss kindness and empathy, and the reactions of others. Also discuss how others’ behaviors affect them.
- Continue to teach that "no" means "no," period.
As your child prepares for middle school and has more unsupervised time with friends, be ready for more complicated situations and questions. A strong foundation in respecting bodily consent, and a strong relationship with a parent, will serve them and you well as they move into school dances and dating.