Consent is an important concept that has been widely used in the both mainstream and social media in the past month. It is an idea that children can learn as early as preschool — the belief that we should respect other people’s boundaries, in order to be safe, and build healthy relationships.
Talking to our kids about consent is critically important. We need to role model asking permission to touch children’s belongings and encourage them to ask permission to play with another child’s toys, share someone else’s food or be in their personal space. No matter how small or trivial these things may seem it helps our children develop an understanding of what consent means and how they can seek it. Extended family members need to be encouraged to ask permission to hug children rather than simply requiring children to hug people they may not feel comfortable hugging. We need to help both our girls and boys understand that if someone says ‘no’ or ‘stop’ and their face, or voice, indicates that they are not enjoying the game or activity anymore it needs to stop. These concepts can be modelled in early childhood and help children begin to establish individual boundaries, understand what respect is, what respect looks like in practice and enable them to feel empowered to speak up for themselves.
Parents I have worked with have found the following four strategies useful when discussing the concept of consent with their young children.
Teach the correct vocabulary early.
Give your child the correct, scientific words to describe their body parts, this helps break down the stigma and encourages them to not be embarrassed when talking about their bodies with their parents.
Teach children independence and body autonomy.
This is the concept that individuals have control over their bodies, what happens to them and who is allowed to touch them. We need to respect children’s wishes about tickling, kissing, cuddling and hugging – they should not be forced to hug or kiss anyone. We need to teach our children that if someone says “no” to be touched that request should immediately be respected and the behaviour needs to stop. Talk to your children about areas of the body that are public and private (I often do this by talking about the areas underwear or bathing suits cover).
Talk to friends and family about consent.
Let friends and family know that you’re teaching your children about consent, body autonomy and boundaries. That way grandma or grandpa doesn’t get offended if they don’t get a kiss. There may need to be a re-education process for close family members that explains it’s not a requirement that grandchildren automatically kiss, hug or sit on grandparents’ laps. There are other ways to show affection and care e.g. by giving a high five or fist bump. Explain what you’re teaching to your GP and get them to ask for consent before touching your child too. As children get older, you can explain that certain people may have different levels of access to their body e.g. it’s fine if mum hugs them, or the family doctor to needs to touch their body to make sure they are well, but it’s not ok for a complete stranger to do these things.
Teach the importance of telling someone.
We need to reassure children that if someone violates their bodily autonomy, or touches them in a private area, it isn’t their fault. We need to stress the critical importance of telling someone they trust if this happens, even if the adult doing it is someone they trust or know.
These are concepts and lessons that need to be taught and talked about more than once. As parents we need to be modelling these behaviours and reminding our children of the concepts over a period of time, so they become engrained attitudes and habits. This will ensure our children fully understand concepts like bodily autonomy and verbal consent and have healthy, happy and safe relationships.
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