Start Teaching Your Kids About Consent Now — Here Are 6 Expert Tips to Make It Easy
Parenthood is full of contradictions. We tell our kids that "no means no," and they don't have to touch anyone if they don't want to, yet we ask them to hug their Aunt Susan upon first meeting her. We tell them to ask permission before touching, then tickle them until they scream. We empower them to make decisions, then force them to finish all the food on their plate. These types of mixed messages can be confusing for everyone!
"It is important to teach children about consent to help them recognize, respond, and seek assistance should they find themselves in a potentially exploitative, threatening, or abusive situation," Jeincy Duarte, PsyD, at the Child Mind Institute, told POPSUGAR.
Since my 3-year-old loves giving kisses (even to new friends he meets at the playground), I've talked to him several times about not kissing, hugging, or touching someone if they don't want him to. At times, he's told me, "Don't touch me!" and I stopped ruffling his hair or trying to cuddle up with him to respect his space, and I've read books about consent with him. But there has to be something more I can do as a mom to teach my kids about consent, even before he and his 2-year-old brother are ready for the sex talk. To figure out some easy, at-home ways to handle this delicate conversation, POPSUGAR spoke with psychologists for their suggestions. Find a few tips for parents to talk to their kids about consent in the slides ahead.
Name Body Parts and Explain Privacy
Words like "willie" and "girlie bits" may seem cute, but teaching your child the actual names of body parts can help alleviate the fear and mystery of this area. From there, you can take steps to help them understand which parts are private.
"As young as 4 or 5, parents can teach their kids about body parts and privacy via developmentally appropriate ways, such as books, stories, and pretend or 'role play' practices," Dr. Duarte said. "Helpful books and stories may include those that teach important social skills or concepts through pictures, illustrations, and simple words. These are commonly used to teach children concepts such as maintaining appropriate personal space and understanding their body parts and privacy."
Explain That Different Relationships Have Different Types of Touch
Navigating different relationships can be complicated for kids, which is why it's super important for parents to be open and straightforward. "Parents are encouraged to discuss different types of relationships (family members, teachers, friends, acquaintances, community helpers, strangers), and how social, boundary, and distance rules apply to these relationships," said Dr. Duarte. "These discussions can lead to pretend practices in which parents can simulate a situation and ask the child if it is appropriate for the person to touch them."
Dr. Duarte shared a few examples of this:
- Discussing different types of touch (hugs, kisses, pat on the back, handshake, high five).
- Practicing how to ask someone if it is OK to touch or hug them, how to say 'no,' 'stop,' or 'this is making me feel uncomfortable,' and how to let an adult know if an inappropriate situation has taken place.
- Establishing privacy expectations from a young age (private places or body parts are always covered with clothes; a person gets undressed in their bedroom or bathroom).
"These habits are important to help children distinguish inappropriate versus appropriate social interactions and physical contact," she said.
Model Always Asking Permission
Model the consent behavior you hope to see in your kids by asking before a hug or a kiss, or if you can join them in their room to play with them. This will naturally teach children about consent. "Teach them to always ask permission — regardless of whether they are hugging a friend or playing with someone else's toys, asking permission reinforces the importance of choice," Raheel Karim, MD, a psychiatrist at Pall Mall Medical, told POPSUGAR. "As a parent or caregiver, you should also model this behavior."
Asking permission goes into other areas as well, according to Dr. Karim, including washing private parts. "Encouraging your child to wash their own genitals instills that this part of their body is private," he said. "If you do need to help them, ask their permission."
Finally, asking permission means if your child says "no," respect that. "Rather than ordering your child to hug or kiss family members goodbye, give them a choice," said Dr. Karim. "Affection should not be forced, and if your child only feels comfortable with a high five, handshake, or simply saying 'goodbye,' you should accept this."
Teach Your Child That "No" Is Final
Nobody likes to hear the word "no," least of all toddlers. But parents can encourage toddlers to accept the word "no" on the playground or at home by frequently reminding them, praising them when they respect other's boundaries, and modeling this behavior themselves.
"When a peer has turned down an invite to play, parents should encourage young children to simply say 'OK,' respecting others' boundaries. When helping young children adopt healthy habits and good boundaries, positive reinforcement is key," Desreen N. Dudley, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist at Teladoc, a global leader in virtual care, told POPSUGAR. "Parents should pay attention to and praise kids when they see them practicing good boundaries and consent. And what parents model is probably the most effective way of helping kids establish boundaries. So, parents should keep in mind that they should be giving and receiving informed consent from others in the presence of their children."
Katie Gallagher, director of education for Candor Health Education, a Chicago area nonprofit that provides education programs on tough topics for kids, agreed. "Teach young children that 'no' and 'stop' are important words, and when we hear those words, we stop what we are doing right away," Gallagher told POPSUGAR. "Parents need to make sure that they do not 'give in' to a child's begging after being told 'no.' This way, parents model that 'no' and 'stop' are final rather than an invitation for negotiation."
Use Language Your Children Will Understand
You don't need to talk about sexual consent with a toddler, but there is language you can use that they will understand. "Teaching consent and other important topics will be most effective if we use language and methods that consider the child's age," Dr. Duarte said. "Younger children may benefit best from simple words or phrases that they can understand, concrete examples ('Mommy and daddy can hug you, but a stranger should not'), visuals and pictures (showing what appropriate personal space looks like such as staying at arm's length), and stories. Parents of older children, teenagers, and adolescents can engage in more detailed conversations about consent and rights, including discussions on sexual and romantic activity consent."
Don't Undermine the Consent Lessons With Your Own Behavior
Despite our best intentions, parents mess up. But when teaching your kids about consent, it's important to be aware of the ways in which we unintentionally undermine the consent lessons. "It is easy for parents to fall into the trap of assuming that certain behaviors are fine with their child. Parents need to remember to ask too," Gallagher said. "The reality is that answering for a child or making decisions on their behalf is easier than letting a child answer simple questions and make simple decisions for themselves. However, by failing to allow children the time they need to think about what they feel and then respond with consent or not, parents can undermine all the consent conversations they had and consent modeling they have done with their child."
Sarah Casper, a consent educator and founder of Comprehensive Consent, said that parents often preach consent but don't practice it. "When parents say 'your body belongs to you,' but then hold their child down to brush their teeth, or say 'hands on your own body,' but then tickle their child without permission, they are undermining everything they are trying to teach," Casper told POPSUGAR. "In moments where safety isn't an immediate concern, parents can give reminders (e.g., 'in five minutes, it will be time to brush teeth'), two options (e.g.,'Your teeth need to be brushed. Would you like to brush them or would you like me to brush them for you?'), or increase the fun factor, (e.g., 'I'm going to brush my teeth too, who do you think can get their mouth foamier?'). With these modifications, parents prove to their child that their body does belong to them, even when someone with authority is present and has their own goals (like getting their child to bed or, in the future, having a sexual interaction)."
Learn More Through These Resources
The consent conversation should be ongoing — it's never a one-and-done conversation. The Sex Positive Families Instagram page has tons of good information and quick infographics on teaching and modeling consent. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) also has helpful information about talking to teenagers about consent, as well as the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, and the Child Mind Institute. You should also talk to your pediatrician for more helpful tips.