Why Consent May Be the Most Important Lesson You’ll Ever Teach Your Child
For many of us, the word “consent” is heavily intertwined with the word “sex,” making the concept something we would only broach with an older child.
But while consent does play a major role in healthy sexual relationships, it also permeates into many other parts of our lives, at all ages and stages, helping us set boundaries and learn respect for ourselves and others.
“But my child is so little! Surely talks about consent can wait until later, right?”
The truth is, it’s never too early to teach our children about consent. Learning to ask for permission before a physical interaction takes place—or deciding whether or not to give that permission to someone else—is an essential skill.
Physical interactions can take many forms for young children. There are plenty of opportunities for little ones to practice asking for someone else’s consent, or decide if they want to give their own:
“Is it ok if I take this toy?” is not only a polite request, but also a great way to practice impulse control; the child has to stop, think and inquire before taking. That extra step could save a scuffle or two!
Asking a friend, “Can I hold your hand when we go down the slide?” might seem like a small thing, but it is affirming for a child to decide whether or not they want to be touched. Maybe holding hands makes them uncomfortable, or they want to practice more independence.
“Aunty Linda wants to give you a hug. Is that ok?” It should not be assumed that a child will automatically want to hug everyone who wants a hug, even a close friend or relative.
These scenarios lay the groundwork for larger acts requiring consent later in life. If a child learns early on that they have autonomy over their own bodies, they are better equipped to recognize when someone is crossing boundaries that should not be crossed.
This is why, if a child does not want to give Aunty Linda a hug, we should not push the issue. Overruling a child’s right to say “no” might seem rather harmless at the time (and could even spare some hurt feelings on Linda’s part), but it can also teach a lack of consent is okay in other situations—and that’s a dangerous lesson.
Sadly, 34% of sexual abuse cases occur in children younger than 9, and in 90% of those cases, the perpetrators are either family members or are known to the child in other ways (a coach, neighbour, friend, etc.)
In other words, the vast majority of perpetrators are not strangers, making consent an important part of all relationships.
And sexual abuse is only one kind of act that robs children of control over their own bodies. All forms of physical assault, including bullying, involve a gross lack of consent.
This is why learning boundaries is a vital skill. Allowing a child to decide whether or not they want to hug or kiss someone they know can have far-reaching positive consequences when it comes to setting boundaries around all acts.
Just as importantly, children should learn other people have autonomy over their own bodies as well. Understanding that “no” should be respected is an important part of any consent discussion, but it shouldn’t end there. Just because someone doesn’t say “no” does not mean they’re saying “yes.” In fact, anything other than an enthusiastic “yes” on another’s part could also mean “no.”
Sometimes, other children are shy or afraid of making someone angry by voicing disagreement. Have your child look for cues of discomfort, such as the child going quiet, or shrugging rather than enthusiastically agreeing.
Teach your child, too, that people are allowed to change their minds. Just because a friend wanted to hold your hand five minutes ago does not mean he necessarily wants to hold it now. Consent can be taken away as quickly as it is given.
And this friend might be OK with holding hands, but not hugging. Consent for one act does not imply consent for another.
Consent is not a one-day teaching, but something we gently teach our children over time. Mistakes will be made and lines will be crossed, which is all the more reason for kids to learn the basics while they’re young and the consequences are likely less impactful.
Empowering our children with the skills necessary to have respectful and healthy relationships throughout their lives? Priceless.