As parents, often times we dread the discussion that many refer to as “the talk.” We see it not as an important introduction to growth and adulthood, but as a loss of innocence. We want to hold our little babies for as long as we can, and not give up their childhood.
Yet, we grow. We all do. And in this day and age – when it’s hard to hide our children from the terrors of the outside world – we need to teach them early to ensure that they become the best people we always want them to be.
Teaching them to be “the best” means something different for everyone, but empathy and critical thinking is something we all hope to share with our children. That is why I urge you, as parents, to teach your children the importance of consent at a young age. Even toddlers have the ability to learn and understand the importance of bodily autonomy.
If you don’t believe consent is an important topic to cover with your children, let me shed some light on the issue.
Just this year, the college sexual assault epidemic came to a head. It is widely understood that one in five women and one in sixteen men are estimated to be assaulted in college. Joe Biden supported and helped create a sexual assault ‘Bill of Rights’ for victims of assault. The move was important for not only the protection of young victims, but also for Title IX and the pursuit of gender equality in our society.
Not only that, but there is an increased awareness around consent due to our current election. With the President-elect’s history of groping women, many parents of daughters were horrified by his words. Yet, parents of son’s should take heed, too. Not teaching your child the importance of consent could lead them in that direction; towards a lack of respect for other humans and a sense of privilege to do as they please.
Consent is important to a child’s understanding and shaping of their world view. It is an extremely heavy topic to approach, but it can be done without crossing into nightmarish territory.
In fact, consent can be taught without reference to sexual acts at all. It’s simpler than many people think, and I would like to provide some tips on how to teach your child – no matter their age or ability – to understand the importance of bodily autonomy and consent. It can be as simple as allowing your child to say “no.”
The Unwanted Family Hug or Kiss
This scenario is all too common, and often times is depicted comically in television or movies. However, it can become a powerful teaching moment for your child.
Let me paint the picture:
Aunt Nancy comes over and declares to your three year old “Come over here and give your Aunty a kiss on the cheek!” Your child says “No, I don’t want to…” and your Aunt Nancy acts hurt and annoyed.
By reinforcing your child’s decision to say no, you are teaching your child the importance of basic consent. “No means no, and that’s ok. You don’t want to kiss your Aunt, and she should understand that that decision is important to you. Would you rather hug her or blow her a kiss?”
Your Aunt might find it rude, but explain to her later (away from your child) that in a similar situation – say if your child is older and an older individual acts inappropriately towards them – they need to understand that saying no really means no. That their decision is not “rude” but necessary for avoiding a potentially bad situation. No does not mean “convince me” or “force me to do what I don’t want to do.”
Your aunt will understand, and your child will appreciate your support and feel more trusting of you when they are uncomfortable.
Rough Housing and “Boys will be Boys”
Children rough house. It’s something they do, and many times it’s something everyone involved is alright with. It’s certainly not something to write off as “gender specific behavior.”
In this scenario, your child is playing on the playground and their playmate screams out “STOP” but your child continues to roughhouse with them.
Pull your child aside and let them know “When your friend says ‘no’ or ‘stop’ it’s really important to stop and listen to them. If you yelled stop at them, you would want them to stop, wouldn’t you?”
Teach them the importance of acknowledging those words, and they will carry that into their adult lives. Never allow the phrase “boys will be boys” to pass your lips. It excuses abusive behavior and can be especially damaging to both young girls who are hurt and the attitude of young boys who think they can get away with it.
The Importance of Permission
Consent can be defined many ways, but one of the fundamental aspects is the importance of permission.
Children are often taught this in other respects – such as getting permission from parents – but you can help them understand it fully in terms of people outside their immediate family or authority figures. Permission applies to every human, not just those in charge.
This scenario is also common and simple. Teach your child to request permission before touching a friend or playmate their age. Have them ask the friend for a hug, instead of hugging without permission. Don’t tell them to hug their friend goodbye; instead tell them to ask their friend if they can hug them.
If the friend says “no” and doesn’t want a hug, then reassure your child that it’s ok. You can wave instead, but your child will remember the importance of asking before doing.
The Importance of Trust, Communication, and Empathy
In the end, these small acts can shape a child, but trust, communication, and empathy are truly important to a child’s wellbeing.
Reinforce the importance of communication in your child, and never put them down for their emotions. Teach them empathy and the ability to communicate despite being upset. Letting them get in touch with their feelings can help them become better listeners and communicators, and will teach consent through empathy.
One scenario that helps develop empathy is through personal mistakes. Say your child – intentionally or otherwise – hurts their playmate emotionally or physically. Reminding them of how we feel when that happens can help them understand how others feel when your child hurts them.
“You hurt your friend’s feelings with what you said today. We don’t want our friends to hurt because of what we said, right? It doesn’t feel good when they say mean things to us, so why would we want them to feel that way?”
Even despite any emotions your child may have – anger, frustration, or otherwise – your child will empathize with their friend. Reinforcing that will help them be more empathetic in their adult life.
These are some of the more common instances of how you can teach your child about consent, but there are many other options as well. Teaching them now can impact them long into their adult lives. Remember, teaching children the importance of consent now can lead to a brighter and safer future for everyone.
Katie McBeth is a freelance writer out of Boise, ID. She enjoys reading teen novels, eating mac ‘n cheese, and attending indie concerts in small bars. Her love for reading is only trumped by her love for cats, of which she has three. She also has a dog, and he helps keep her grounded. You can follow her animal and writing adventures on Instagram or Twitter: @ktmcbeth.