There are many reasons to teach our children, boys and girls alike, the concept of consent and what it looks like. Although some of these reasons may be frightening (avoiding abusive situations), it’s also just teaching them to be good people. Beginning the consent lesson early and being consistent with it lays the foundation for not only maintaining the innocence of their childhoods, but also setting up for their adult lives.
Visualizing and conceptualizing what consent looks like to young kids is hard. It’s tied to being respectful of their bodies and teaching them to be respectful of other people’s space and belongings as well. There are a few concepts even very young kids can begin learning.
Whether it’s for a turn with a toy they’re wanting or to hug someone goodbye, learning to ask permission is integral to learning consent. It’s a great starting block for bigger ideas because toddlers can understand taking turns; just watch a group of them as they line up to go down a slide. Helping them learn consent is started by teaching them to ask permission for something they want to do or play with. My two-year-old knows to say, “Please I have a turn?” while pointing to the item he wants, which is a basic step in understanding that the world isn’t actually his.
Kristoff from Frozen may just be my favorite Disney fella, and a big part of that is due to him asking Anna if he can kiss her at the end of the movie. This is great modeling for kids to see — that no one should touch you, hug you, or kiss you without you agreeing. The other side of this is that if your child is the one asking or responding and the answer is ‘no,’ no one makes them if they don’t want to. Maybe they’re just exercising their control of a situation, but they need to learn that their use of the word ‘no’ is valuable.
The Power of No
The words “no” and “stop” should always be respected. From the time my kids could say these words, I was firm (to the point where I’ve received criticism) that if they ever used them, the listener must respond. When I was critiqued for making someone stop tickling my child when they said ‘stop,’ I explained that if ever he says no or stop and someone doesn’t oblige, he must be able to understand that something is wrong; that no one should ever touch him if he doesn’t want them to, and he should raise a huge ruckus to attract attention and get help. No one wants to think about having to prepare his or her kids against abuse, but the alternative is what’s truly unthinkable.
Part of this lesson is teaching kids to only use these powerful words when they mean them. If we’re playing tickle-fight and he laughingly says stop, I stop. I often use this opportunity to remind him that if he says stop, whomever he says it to should stop, and he knows what to do if they don’t. The other side is that they also understand better if someone tells them to stop.
Encourage Decision Making
Children don’t have a lot of autonomy, and their days are mostly structured by their parents and caretakers. Anyone who has ever argued with a toddler over wearing flip-flops in the snow understands how passionate kids can be about the decisions they are allowed to make.
Although it can be frustrating and time consuming, it is important to encourage them making their own decisions. Giving them the opportunity to say yes or no to that Paw Patrol shirt reinforces that their voice matters, and they deserve to be heard. If they’re insistent on weather-inappropriate clothing, you can explain that those clothes aren’t an option because of the weather and offer them two options that are appropriate to choose from.
Grooming and Hygiene
As kids are growing up, it’s of course important to teach them proper hygiene and how to take care of their bodies. Bath time is also a great opportunity to reinforce the concept that someone should ask before touching them, and to model consent by asking permission to wash them. If they say no, then you hand over the wash cloth and supervise them washing themselves while explaining, again, that no one should touch them if they’ve said no. The right terminology is also key, as explained in this KMB post.
Live Your Values
All of these lessons will be further reinforced if your kids see you modeling them. That means if your partner is tickling you and you say stop, they should stop. If your toddler is scaling you like a jungle gym and you say no, it’s an opportunity to reinforce the value of no (we talk about no and stop a LOT, because our boys love to wrestle and rough-house and it often ends with a firm “Stop”).