Growing Kids and Boundaries: Teaching Consent By Age and Stage
“The talk”, the birds and the bees….and consent. Consent is an integral part of any sex education, and more than that, it’s a critical non-intimate life skill. But where do you start? And when? Can young kids learn consent? How do you make it not so awkward to talk about?
We believe it’s never too early to start teaching consent, and we have tips for how to incorporate these skills into daily life at every age.
What is Consent?
Consent has become a more common word in our society since the #MeToo movement in 2017. In its simplest form, consent is an agreement that something – usually something sexual – is OK with both parties. Consent is generally thought of as an adult issue, so parents can find it challenging to think about teaching it to their children.
Oftentimes, consent is expressed verbally as a “yes”, but it’s much more than just that. You may hear the terms “affirmative consent” or “enthusiastic consent” meaning each person audibly and willingly (without coercion) agrees to participate.
But consent can also look like:
- Ensuring both parties are of sound mind to give consent, meaning they are not under the influence, and they are intellectually able to consent to the act. Children are never able to consent to sex.
- Making sure there is no coercion or pressuring either party to consent.
- Considering authority or power dynamics that may make someone feel unable to object.
- Understanding that consent is ongoing, and either party can change their mind at any time.
How to Talk to Kids About Consent
Understandably, you might feel uncomfortable talking with your children, especially if they are young, about sexual abuse. Certainly, any conversation with children needs to be age appropriate and aimed to educate and empower them – not scare them.
The great news is that consent is an easy topic to incorporate into your daily life and doesn’t require you to jump right in to those heavier topics. Think of teaching consent like building a strong foundation – one that you can start with babies and grow as your child ages. By the time your kids are ready for more in-depth talks, they’ll already have a great understanding of consent to build on.
Talking to Young Kids About Consent
Before these little ones are ready to learn about sexual violence or even have access to the Internet, you can teach consent with simple acts of respect for themselves and others. Here are four ways you can teach consent to even the youngest kids.
1. Model consent for them.
They say actions speak louder than words, and long before kids can understand what we’re teaching them, they learn by watching. By practicing consent with our partners, friends, and children, we can model what consent should look like to those ever-watchful eyes.
2. Give them bodily autonomy.
Obviously, kids can’t have a choice in everything they do – they have to brush their teeth, for example. But there are plenty of opportunities to give kids agency over the daily choices that affect their body. When we give kids the ability to choose, we teach them an essential skill that they can carry into their interactions when we’re not around.
An easy way to do this is asking if it’s OK to hug or kiss kids rather than just doing it (and not coercing them into physical affection with others), and respecting a “no” that may follow. You can also incorporate this idea in your daily routine by giving options like, “Would you like to wear the yellow or blue shirt today?” and “We need to brush your teeth. Would you like to do it, or would you like me to help?”
3. Teach kids to trust their bodies.
Our bodies are powerful tools in alerting us to something that’s not right. Teaching kids to recognize and listen to the way they feel in their body builds confidence in their instincts and empowers them to trust those feelings later in life.
Talk to kids about warning signs they may feel – tightness in the chest, upset stomach, uneasiness – and that those feelings shouldn’t be ignored. Make sure they know they can always voice those confusing feelings to you and ask for help sorting through those feelings and making decisions.
4. Give them empowering language and opportunities to use it.
Start with the basics here – body parts are not dirty words. Teach your kids the anatomically correct names of their body parts so they are both educated and empowered to use them when appropriate.
Along those same lines, give your kids the opportunity to say “no” when appropriate. Teach them it’s ok to say no to a hug from their grandma if they don’t want to be touched, and no to their friends if they don’t want to play the game everyone is playing. Empowering your kids with the ability to say no to small things will build the confidence they need to say no to bigger things in the future.
You can also download our Body Safety Rules PRINTABLE here.
Talking to Tweens and Teens About Consent
At this age, hormones are racing and kids may be ready to explore dating – or at least probably have more of an interest in their first crush. As such, they’re probably ready for more serious conversations about boundaries and consent in a sexual context.
The great news is that as you lay the foundation of consent in the early years, more serious conversations about sexual violence, online safety and predation are easier to have.
Here are four ways you can continue teaching consent as kids get older.
1. Teach them that consent is both given and received.
Now that you’ve laid the foundation of teaching kids to give their consent, they also need to learn to receive consent from the other person. Teach them to ask questions like, “Is this OK?” and “May I kiss you?” and “Are you feeling comfortable?”
Teach them to look for body language, not just the words that are spoken, and to handle rejection with empathy, respecting when someone says no.
2. Turn awkward moments into teaching opportunities.
Growing up your parents probably did one of two things when a racy scene came on in a movie – fast forwarded past it like it wasn’t happening, or suffered through it in awkward silence. But what if we used those moments to talk to our kids about what they’re seeing and hearing?
There are plenty of popular songs and movies that our kids will inevitably encounter that send positive and negative messages about sex, risky behaviors, and consent. If you’re watching a movie with your kids and one of these scenes come up, use that time to discuss what’s being done right, and what the characters should do regarding consent.
3. Talk about digital consent.
The reality is that our kids are spending more time online than any generation prior. From apps, to games, social media, and even homework – much of their life occurs online. That’s why it’s critical to teach kids that consent extends beyond the screen. This can look like not posting photos of someone online without their permission, not tagging friends at a location without their consent, or not sharing private conversations or intimate details or photos online without a go ahead from the other person.
It’s also important to teach kids that they have the power to give consent in their online interactions. Teach them they can say no to conversations that make them uncomfortable and to sending or receiving photos or videos. Empower them to decline friend requests from people they don’t know in real life. Teaching kids to extend and receive consent in their online activities is critically important to protecting them from online sexual predators.
4. Believe and advocate for them.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, believe and advocate for kids when they share concerns or abuse with you. When we believe kids, it teaches them to trust you and their own instincts. It also encourages them to believe others’ stories.
Ask if they need or want intervention. This might mean talking to a family member, coach, or teacher – or in some cases, helping a child navigate the legal system.
Rather than having “the talk” with your kids, think of teaching consent as an ongoing dialogue that spans their entire lives. Consent isn’t a one-time thing, and it’s never too early to start. It’s a million small conversations and daily actions that can help them feel safe in their own body, and respect the sanctity of someone else’s.