How to Teach Kids About Consent
Sex education, to the limited extent that it is formally provided in India, tends to focus on anatomy and physiology, while missing the bigger goal: healthy sexual behavior and relationships. Our young (and not so young) adults are left under-prepared and misinformed, in an environment ripe for sexual harassment and abuse, including child abuse. To counter this, we need to actively teach children about consent.
While conversations around sex are uncomfortable for most, research shows that having positive parental role models determines healthy sexual behavior in adolescence and adulthood. Despite differences in comfort and personal values around sex, most of us would agree that we want to raise children who respect others and are treated with respect — including in the context of sexual intimacy.
When to start teaching kids about consent
The foundation for consent is laid long before kids are ready to engage in sexual behaviour or relationships. Therefore, we can and should teach kids about consent from their earliest years. It is only how we teach it that varies depending on age and level of development. From ages 1 to 4, children begin to explore their own bodies, become curious about other’s bodies, and develop a gender identity. From ages 5 to 8, children experience shyness and embarrassment related to their bodies, and seek more privacy, and they also learn friendship-related skills. From the age of 10 onward, puberty begins.
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Consent Isn’t Just a Value; It’s Also a Set of Skills
Between ages 1 to 8, teaching kids about consent is all about the messages we send — explicitly, through what we say, and implicitly, through what we do or model for them.
What to say (or not say) to teach kids about consent
Say: “Your body belongs to you” and “Your body, your choice.”
Depending on the child’s age and developmental level, the explanation of what these phrases mean can be as simple or complex as needed, encompassing body-related topics such as: self-care, hygiene, privacy, and safety.
Children are, of course, inherently dependent upon the adults that care for them, and this paradox will have to be explained (probably repeatedly): how parents are responsible for children until they are adults, and therefore, get to make more of the decisions/big decisions, but as children get older they become more and more responsible for their own bodies.
Say: “May I?” “Can I?” “Is it okay to…?”
The word consent itself can be introduced without mentioning anything related to sex — the most general definition of the term is “asking for permission.” Modelling the act of asking for permission, across different social situations (asking for a hug, asking for a toy, etc.), teaches children the language of consent, while conveying to them that they have autonomy and deserve to be respected.
Also, focus on nuances like actually waiting for an answer after you ask, and reading non-verbal cues, like reluctant/hesitant/uncomfortable body language, to model the communication skills involved. Crucially, if your kid answers with a “No,” you need to listen – which means being careful about what we ask for.
Say: “I know you’re frustrated because I / they said ‘No.’ What can you do about that?”
Consent isn’t just about waiting for a “Yes.” It’s about dealing with the emotions that go along with a “No,” too. While parents can model what it looks and sounds like to respect “No,” kids also need to understand what forcing, and pressuring mean, and what to do instead when refused. Discuss with them: If you want something someone else has, and they refuse to give it to you — what else can you do instead of forcing them or hurting them? How can you manage your feelings of anger/upset/unfairness?
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Say: “They said, ‘No.’ You need to listen to them.”
Our responses to situations should convey a consistent message. For example, when one child is repeatedly insisting that another child hug them, do we tell the first child that they need to accept no for an answer? Or do we tell the other child to give in?
This becomes even trickier when an adult is doing the asking, since the child inherently has less power in that dynamic. When it comes to other adults that a child interacts with, the onus is largely on parents to advocate for their children. As for getting extended family members on the same page, explaining the concept of consent might be a challenge; instead, talking about respect, or independence, which are the underlying concepts of consent, may prove more effective.
Don’t say: “You can’t be full already,” “How can you be cold?” “Don’t be so shy.”
As sex educator Monica Rivera explains, we often unwittingly dismiss children’s discomfort. When we do this, however, they learn that it is not okay to feel the way they do, and not okay to like or dislike the sensations that they feel — a message that a child carries with them, beyond the family and into all other relationships.
Don’t say: “Boys will be boys” or “He’s mean to you because he likes you.”
If a boy pushes a girl because he likes her, and we condone that, what message do they both receive? That aggression is a means to express affection, and a boy will not be held accountable when he hurts someone. As Rivera points out, “boys will be boys” is dangerous, because boys become men. And as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains, society teaches girls shame, especially around sexuality, and to silence themselves. To not be angry, aggressive, or tough — meanwhile, boys are either praised or excused for the same reasons. This conditioning leads to struggling with consent in gendered ways: women struggle to enforce boundaries, men struggle to respect them.
Related on The Swaddle:
We Need to Change How We’re Raising Boys
Monitoring the unconscious gender-related messages we send is difficult and requires us to constantly check ourselves — but without doing so, our teaching of consent is ineffectual .
What to do to teach kids about consent
Offer and discuss choices (especially when body related)
For a 2-year-old, it could be choosing when they want to be hugged or tickled; for a 5-year-old, it can mean picking out their own clothes; for a 7-year-old, it can be choosing which sport they play. The level of autonomy can vary too – perhaps the child can make a decision based on (already parentally-approved) options provided, or carry out one part of a task independently. Parents don’t have to provide free reign, and there will, of course, be things that are non-negotiable (matters of hygiene or safety, for example).
So long as children understand why certain choices are off-limits, and we provide a good volume of choices, the non-negotiable things won’t compromise what we’re teaching kids about consent. Finally, for these choices to be meaningful, the level of responsibility and independence must keep increasing with age and developmental level.
This may feel like a large and difficult undertaking, only one of many that come with raising and educating children. But consent is a concept central to our relationships, with our own bodies, and our relationships with others, sexual and otherwise. And so, we must teach this large and difficult skill, in small, everyday ways.
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