Consent is best learned at an early age. By preschool, kids are already getting messages about relationships and boundaries from TV, movies, social media, and friends. Thus, it’s an ideal time for parents to step up and start talking about consent. Teaching consent in early childhood can help kids become more empathetic, respectful, and emotionally intelligent, and can even help protect them from sexual predators by giving them language to set boundaries.
Millennials and older generations may have first learned about the notion of “consent” as a buzzword in relation to sex (i.e. “ask for consent” before being sexual with someone), but the truth is that consent applies to many situations in life outside of sex. Consent, at its core, is about treating people with dignity and respecting boundaries in order to be safe and build healthy relationships. First ask yourself: What messages is my child getting about relationships and consent? What messages do I want them to get?
Teaching Consent at Every Age
Kids are never too young to learn about consent. There are plenty of age-appropriate ways to introduce younger kids to the concept of consent without teaching them about sex, or necessarily even introducing the word “consent.” For example, if you’re teaching consent to toddlers, you might use words like body, space, and touch.
“The goal is that ‘if a kid doesn’t want to be hugged by another kid, he can say, ‘This is my body,’ and be understood.”– Harvard Graduate School of Education
Conversations about sexual harassment and relationships can wait until middle school or high school, but talking with your child about consent early on will encourage open and honest communication as they mature and lay the groundwork for future relationships.
How Do You Explain Consent?
Ultimately, consent means asking someone for permission to do something and accepting their answer. First, explain to your child that consent means always choosing to respect others’ boundaries. Boundaries are a person’s right to choose what is comfortable for them. In other words, boundaries are what you’re ok or not ok with.
Next, ask your child to think about how their actions might make another person feel (and to ask questions if they don’t know.) Explain that everyone has different boundaries, and no one should ever feel pressured to do something that they’re uncomfortable with. Empathy is critical (recognizing the feelings of others, seeing them as important, being able to put yourself in their shoes).
Consent scenarios show up in kids’ lives on a daily basis, such as when they ask peers if and what they want to play, to sit together at lunch or on the bus, or to share school supplies, toys, food, etc. Teaching kids to ask for consent and accept rejection in these everyday ways builds a foundation for practicing consent in intimate relationships as they get older. Here are some scenarios that can be teachable moments:
- Your child feels rejected by a friend. You might say: “It sounds like your friend didn’t want to sit beside you on the bus today. Sometimes you don’t want to sit beside me and that’s okay. Everybody gets to make choices about what’s comfortable for them.”
- The cat is pinning its ears and walking away. You can point out nonverbal behavior – “The cat is walking away from you, it looks like they don’t want any more pets right now” or asking questions like, “What do you think that means?”
- A kid is crying on the playground. You might say, “What can we do to make him feel better?”, or “Should we ask him what might make him feel better?” instead of, “Go give him a hug.”
Consent Workshop Activities: Create a Boundary Circle
Start by drawing 5 concentric circles in the shape of a bullseye. The center represents you. The first “inner circle” represents the closest people in your life – your mom, dad, best friend, etc. The second circle might represent friends and family. The third circle is for acquaintances, and the outside ring represents strangers.
Next, write out what actions you’re comfortable doing with the people in each circle group. For instance, you might be comfortable with a kiss from people in your inner circle, a hug from friends and family, and a high-five with an acquaintance. You might be comfortable giving a stranger a smile, or maybe not! Remember, everyone’s boundaries look different.
Depending on the age of your child, you can explain that boundaries can change over time. For example, someone who started out as a friend might become a best friend after you’ve built trust. Or, someone who used to be a best friend might move away and move into the acquaintance circle. This exercise shows that boundaries can be firm or flexible. They can even change on a daily basis! Some days, you might feel like giving someone a hug, and other days you might not be comfortable.
Another exercise you can do is establish a support system using five fingers. Either on your hand or on paper, have your child list five people they feel like they can trust to talk to about issues they may be having. This could be mom, dad, an older sibling, a grandparent, a teacher, a friend, a coach, etc. The list should include at least one person outside the home and one peer who is their age. The goal is that if someone crosses one of their boundaries or does something they’re not ok with, they have a network of people they can reach out to for support.
Model Asking for Consent
Show your child ways to ask for consent by modeling the words and actions yourself. Model respect for boundaries by asking your child for consent and accepting their answer, like when asking for a hug or sharing information about them with others. This might look like:
- “I could tell your guidance counselor that grandma died if that’s okay with you.”
- “It’s okay if you don’t want a goodnight hug.”
- “Do you want a kiss right now?”
Let your child know they can come to you with questions about consent and relationships. Answer their questions honestly and encourage ongoing conversations about respect and safety. For example, you could tell your child, “Everyone’s body deserves respect,” or “If someone hurts us, it’s okay to talk about it.”
In some cultures, it might come across as rude for a kid to not hug their grandparents goodbye. You could say, “It’s really important to say goodbye because we won’t see grandpa for a while, what is the best way to say goodbye?”
Teaching kids about consent is really giving them a voice and choices. Kids that feel heard are more likely to respect boundaries. It helps them understand what it feels like to set a boundary and that setting a boundary is ok to do, even and especially with people they know and love.