How to teach children consent without talking about sex

Conversations about consent typically don’t happen until teens first learn about sex. But body autonomy and personal boundaries are integral parts of our lives from the day we are born. Teaching children about consent when they are young can help them be more aware and vocal about their needs, wants, and desires once they are older. Here are five great ways to teach your children about consent without ever having to say the word “sex”:

  1. Ask their permission. As much as I love scooping up my nieces and nephews the minute I see them, I try to be mindful of their personal bodies. I always ask them if I can pick them up, hold them, or do anything physical with them. More often than not they say yes, but when they say no, I listen to them. Children may be small, but they are still people. I know I wouldn’t want someone bigger than me picking me up against my will, same thing for children.
  2. Avoid forced snuggles and tickles. As an aunt, one of the best things in the world is having my nieces or nephews snuggle up into my lap. Well, in all honesty, listening to their infectious laughter is probably the best thing in the world. But although I would give anything to make those moments last forever, my nieces and nephews have limits. Limits I must respect. I may not be done tickling their bellies, but when they tell me to stop, it is important for me to stop. When I’m not done taking in as much love and coziness with them on my lap, but they want to get up and play with their toys, it is important to let them get up. Children’s bodies are not ours to bend to our whim, they are autonomous beings that have the right to determine their own boundaries. Listening to a child when they say stop sets a very important precedent. Respecting their boundaries, reinforces in their minds, that what they say and what they need matters.
  1. Do not force them to hug or kiss anyone. I remember standing around in a doorway after a great gathering of friends. As we put on our coats and shoes, another friend told her three-year-old daughter to go give everyone hugs and kisses. Mind you, this is the first time I have ever met this child. The look on her face was of obvious discomfort with her mother’s request, but she began to do it anyway. When the little girl got to me I knelt down, looked her in the eyes, and asked her directly “Do you want to give me a hug and kiss?” She was afraid to answer me, but I could tell she wanted to say no. I said to her “It’s OK if you don’t want to, how about we high-five instead?” At that moment, her eyes lit up and she gave me the biggest, hardest high-five she could. It is important we do not force our children to abandon their personal boundaries for the sake of politeness. It teaches them that their bodies aren’t really theirs to control.
  1. Let them stop eating when they are full. This one sounds weird, but hear me out. Many children grow up with the rule that they must “clean their plate” regardless of whether or not they are still hungry. Making a child continue to eat when they are full, inadvertently forces them to push past their natural bodily signals that are telling them to stop. This is actually the perfect metaphor for consent. Consent in sexual activity must be ongoing. By allowing children to stop eating when they are full, it shows them that listening to their body is important. It also reinforces that it is OK to stop doing something that no longer feels good.
  1. Teach them that saying “no” isn’t rude. This rule is incredibly important, particularly among young girls who are socially conditioned to believe that being direct is “rude.” This is a powerful form of emotional manipulation. A few years back I had an opportunity to sit in on a focus group of teen girls while they talked about their sexual experiences. A shocking number of them admitted to going along with sexual acts they weren’t necessarily comfortable with because they “didn’t want to hurt their partner’s feelings.”

This terrified me. Being able to confidently assert your needs, desires, or feelings is the key to empowerment. And while I understand that a lot of the parenting years are focused around guiding your children, which often requires the parent to say “no” to the child, it is also important to incorporate some instances where them saying “no” to you is acceptable.

As you can see, there are several powerful ways we can teach our children about consent without ever having to broach the actual topic of sex. Our life experiences subconsciously direct our behaviors, and if we can encourage positive interpersonal interactions at a young age, it can help build the foundation for body autonomy for years to come.

Amy Sutherland Meet the Author: Amy is a volunteer at the Annex Teen Clinic. She has a tendency to buy more books than she can read!
Educators, Parents, Volunteer
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