How To Teach Consent From the Very Beginning
As parents, the concept of consent is one of the most important lessons to teach our children. What they learn from us is their first and best line of defense.
Young children are vulnerable and trusting, which makes them targets for abusers, both young and older. Instead of a difficult, serious, or weighty conversation, consent and body empowerment can, and should be, woven into our everyday interactions and teachings — casually, matter-of-factly, confidently, just as we would teach how to safely cross the road.
1. Teach through everyday actions and conversations.
Jayneen Sanders is the author of several books about consent and sexual abuse prevention, including several children’s books. “There are so many teaching moments with your child about consent, use them as they arise,” she says. “Children will take their cues from you, and practice consent yourself with your children and other adults. Modeling is children’s most important teacher.”
Ways you can incorporate consent into everyday:
During play, such as tickling or wrestling, teach them that if someone says ‘no’ or ‘stop’ it must be honored immediately. Model this behavior when you are playing with them or tickling them and they say ‘stop,’ no questions asked.
Ask them permission to enter their body space. During diaper changes, infant massage, and potty training, get into the habit of asking if it’s ok if you touch them and respond to their body language and, eventually, words.
During bath time, ask if you can wash the different parts of their body. If they say ‘no,’ cheerfully pass them the washcloth and encourage them to do it themselves with guidance from you.
Don’t insist on them hugging relatives or friends if they do not want to. Allow them to define how they greet or say goodbye to someone, such as a smile, a verbal greeting, a wave, or a high five.
Remind them that just as they are the boss of their own body, others are in charge of their own body too. They must get permission from others before they can touch them in any way, including a hug.
Encourage them to make their own choices and support them, including backing them up to other adults.
At the doctor’s office, nurses and doctors should be asking your child before they touch them. If they don’t, you can politely but firmly say ‘Honey, Dr. Jones is going to listen to your heart now. Is that ok?’ to get your message across.
2. Give them the correct language.
Use the scientific words for body parts, not nicknames or euphemisms. This is part of teaching children body awareness and pride. Teach them that there is no part of their body that is shameful and that every part of their body is wonderful and theirs alone.
Teach them the words to use to give or deny someone permission to enter their body space or touch them: “Yes, you can hug me” and “No” or “Stop.”
3. Answer every question.
Make a promise to your kids that you will always answer any question they have honestly (caveat: age appropriateness is fine!). Answer all questions directly, even if they make you uncomfortable. It is always the better option to work through your own discomfort than to have your child feel they need to go elsewhere for answers.
“Keep the conversations light, conversational and answer any questions they may have honestly and without any sign of your own fear,” says Sanders.
You want to be their trusted safe space. If you don’t know how or can’t answer right away (like the time when we were in the grocery store and my daughter loudly asked me what ‘porn’ is), give them positive feedback for being curious and asking you the question, then tell them when you will answer it: “That’s a great question, honey, and I’m glad you came to me for the answer. It’s the kind of thing we should talk about in private so let’s wait until we’re in the car and then I’ll tell you.”
4. Define a safe network of adults.
As well as having you as a trusted safe space, define a safe network of a few other adults that your child can always talk to if they feel scared, unsafe, or worried and that those adults will believe them. My kids’ safe network includes our best friends whom we see regularly, neighbors they’ve known since birth, school staff, and family members. My daughter has all of our ‘safe’ adults programmed into her cell phone.
5. Respect and trust their voice.
Allow children to make decisions about their body, from what they wear to how they greet people and what activities they do. Treat them with respect and as autonomous beings where possible.
As the mother of three daughters, the importance of teaching consent is personal for Sanders. “Little children, sadly, are often conditioned to do ‘what the big person says’. Assuming they are ‘just children’ and need to do what adults say is basically saying to them ‘your voice doesn’t matter,’ says Sanders. “It does matter and they need to be consulted.”
Trust your child’s instincts and teach them to trust them. too. For the times when you can’t be with your child, teach them about ‘early warning signs,’ the physical symptoms that tell a person something isn’t right: feeling frightened or scared, upset tummy, shakiness, goose bumps. If they experience these, they should talk to someone in their safe network of adults.
6. Read books and watch videos.
As a writer and a mother, Sanders knows the power of a good book. “Story is such a powerful medium to get important messages across to children,” she says. “I feel incredibly strongly that I don’t want another generation of children to suffer sexual abuse when prevention is so simple yet so powerful.”
Sanders books include ‘No Means No!’ which has discussion questions to help guide parents with this crucial conversation. She has also written ‘Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept’ to help children understand that any secret that makes you feel bad should not be kept from a trusted adult. ‘Body Safety Education: a Parent’s Guide to Protecting Kids from Sexual Abuse’ was written expressly to help parents navigate these topics.
Video and online resources are another great way to reach children and there are many to choose from these days.