It is never too early to learn about consent, boundaries, and bodily autonomy. Consent is often linked to sex but means giving permission through words and actions that show agreement.
When taught to children, consent can be applied to various non-sexual situations – for example, giving hugs, borrowing things, and sharing. It is important to teach children about boundaries starting at an early age. Engaging with them helps them set limits, respect boundaries, and teach them about safe and unsafe touches.
This post discusses different scenarios where adults, parents, and caretakers can model consent and boundaries. At the end, please see our resource list including interactive games, additional resources, and ideas that support dialogue with toddlers to elementary-age kids around consent and boundaries.
“The notion of consent may seem very grown up and like something that doesn’t pertain to children,” says Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald. “But the lessons girls learn when they’re young about setting physical boundaries and expecting them to be respected last a lifetime, and can influence how she feels about herself and her body as she gets older. Plus, sadly, we know that some adults prey on children, and teaching your daughter about consent early on can help her understand her rights, know when lines are being crossed, and when to go to you for help.”
While this quote from the Girl Scouts refers to females, the same is true for all people – and you can interchange it with masculine or gender-neutral pronouns. For tips on talking to your child about setting boundaries, read One in Ten Girls is Catcalled Before Her 11th Birthday. Here Are 6 Things Parents Can Do About It.
Consent – both giving and respecting the lack of – is something that should be taught to all children from a very young age. Consenting and asking for consent are all about setting your personal boundaries. Teaching consent can start with giving your child choices at a young age: “Would you like to wear the blue shirt or purple shirt?” Modeling consent by asking children before touching them: “Do you want me to rub your back?” or “Can I give you a goodnight kiss?”
Give your children words to say when setting limits, and have them practice using a firm tone of voice. “I don’t feel like a hug right now. Let’s high five instead.” Children will often giggle when first practicing setting limits or may talk in a soft voice. Encourage them to be firm and clear. Just as important is to teach your child to respect other people’s personal boundaries. Make sure that your child is respecting limits set by other people, even if spoken softly or in a laughing voice.
While teaching children how to set boundaries, it is important that they understand that if someone oversteps their boundaries, whether they said “no” or not, it is not their fault. Explain to your child that they may have different boundaries at different times and that it okay. “Just because you said that it was ok for me to tickle you today doesn’t mean that I will assume I can tickle you tomorrow. I will always ask. Some days you might not feel like being tickled, and others you might.”
Before encouraging your child to hug or kiss relatives, help them with words to say “no” and offer alternatives – “Would you like to give a high five instead?” There are many other ways to show appreciation, thankfulness, and love towards family members. Give your children the space to decide when and how they want to show affection. It is important that they get to choose what feels most comfortable to them. Explain ahead of time to relatives or friends who may try to persuade kids to hug or kiss them when told “no;” ask that they respect your child’s boundaries.
Practice saying things like, “I love you, and I need some personal space right now. I don’t feel like a hug. It doesn’t mean that I don’t love you, sometimes I just don’t feel like hugging.” This models to children that it is ok to set boundaries for yourself, and that you can still love someone and set boundaries. Ask before you borrow something of theirs. Allow your children to say “no” unless there is a safety hazard.
One idea for talking about consent with kids is to play a fun consent game. Stand on the opposite side of the room from your child. Tell them that you are going to walk toward them, and they should say stop when they are uncomfortable, or just before they feel uncomfortable. Tell them that you will pretend to be different people – yourself, other relatives, friends, strangers, etc. and see how the boundaries may change. Switch roles and demonstrate to your child how you would enforce your boundaries. Remind children that those boundaries may fluctuate at different times.
If a child does not respect your or another person’s boundaries, remind them of its importance. “Did you ask Marquis to borrow that pencil?” “Did Sharon say that it was ok to tickle her?” Make sure that they understand the complete nuances of what full and clear consent means.
Resources for talking to youth about consent:
- Stop It Now – Library of Resources
- Moments A Day – Teach Kids About Consent (Printable Conversation Cards)
- Useable Knowledge – Consent at Every Age
- A Resource for Parents and Caregivers of Children 0-12 on Preventing Child Sexual Abuse
- Body Sovereignty and Kids: How we can cultivate a culture of consent | Monica Rivera | TEDxCSU
- Consent for Kids – Video for kids
- Healthy Communication With Kids
- My Body Belongs to Me – A book by Jill Starishevsky
Resources if you believe your child has been sexually abused:
- Harborview Abuse and Trauma Center (Seattle)
- King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (King County)
- Dawson Place Child Advocacy Center (Snohomish County)
Next month, we’ll post Part 2 of our Consent Series focusing on talking with youth and teens about consent!
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