A Step-by-Step Guide to Teaching Your Child Consent
Whether asking to borrow something, sharing a photo on social media or planning a group activity with everyone's input, consent is integrated into most day-to-day activities. The process can include asking questions, setting boundaries and determining what feels comfortable in a given moment.
For children, the same process applies.
Kids establish physical and emotional boundaries by modeling their behavior after adults. Parents and guardians can teach consent through examples, acting out scenarios and responding to a child's boundaries from as early as 1 year old.
When teaching consent, Cara Goodwin, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Virginia, said a sit-down conversation might not be the way to go. Instead, parents and guardians should model consent when the opportunity arises over time.
"Talking about consent should be an ongoing conversation throughout childhood that continues until the child becomes an adult," Goodwin said. "As children get older, the conversations about consent may begin to involve talking about how it relates to sex when it is developmentally appropriate for the child."
Model consent through examples
A 2006 study on social learning, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, indicated children can engage in imitation and emulation as early as 6 months of age. Older toddlers are motivated to copy the actions of a model, such as a parent, to promote interaction and socialization. The child is especially likely to mimic the behavior if the observed adult repeatedly demonstrates it.
Carrie Jackson, Ph.D., a licensed child psychologist, parental coach and DiveThru therapist based in San Diego, recommended several ways to introduce the concept of consent to a child through daily activities. Her primary advice for parents is to ask for permission and use clear questions with their children.
"I would say in daily life and any normal daily activities, there are always opportunities to practice consent," Jackson noted. "Parents can teach children through modeling and asking children questions. By asking questions, parents can transfer that knowledge to their child where they can be applied to other settings."
Jackson recommends questions that follow a particular formula:
- Is it OK if I give you a hug?
- Do you want to give them a hug?
- Can I give you a high-five?
- Do you want my help?
- Can I play with you?
Goodwin added that parents can also create scenarios for a child to mimic behavior.
"It is important for parents/guardians to provide specific examples of how consent works and roleplay different scenarios with their child," she explained. "For example, act out a situation in which a friend gets into their personal space when playing and [ask] how they would tell their friend that they do not like it. Or practice explaining to others that you prefer not to hug."
Boundaries allow children to make firm decisions based on what feels comfortable to them. With the influence parents have on children's responses, it's important for parents to not force a child to engage in or say yes to anything that makes them uncomfortable.
"There is damage in forcing your child to do something," Jackson said. "You're teaching your child that their body doesn't necessarily belong to them, but it belongs to someone else. You're teaching them that it's OK if someone is physically doing something that they don't want to engage in."
By this measure, asking a child a question means accepting their response and responding in an accepting manner.
"If a child says, 'Yes,' then I would say, 'Thank you so much for telling me that' and proceed," Jackson continued. "If a child says, 'No,' it's also important for parents to respond the same. The parent should say, 'Thank you for telling me that,' 'Thank you for letting me ask for your permission' or 'Thank you for telling me your boundaries.' It's important to not criticize your child."
By expanding these conversations to include other family members, and other children and adults, children naturally extend the concept of consent to the wider world. A parent may prompt such conversations with statements such as, "This is my personal space. What does your personal space look like?" or "Can you ask for permission?"
"Raise your child to be assertive and set boundaries," Jackson said. "'Thank you' is a way of letting them know that it's OK. Many kids look for their parents' approval for a lot of things. Therefore, they might feel worried about what their parents will say or [think] they should listen to their parents."
Discussing what's allowed and what's not
When teaching consent and boundaries, parents need to give children specific statements about the anatomy of their bodies. Knowledge of the correct anatomical body parts may help prevent or stop sexual abuse.
"It's not a bad thing for kids to know their anatomically correct body parts, but I think a lot of parents struggle because they might ask themselves, 'Am I sexualizing my kids?'" Jackson explained. "No. It's just their scientific names, and it helps them know what their body parts are. It's very helpful for them."
Research finds that parents are more effective at teaching children the terminology for genitalia than teachers in a school setting. As a result, children who are taught by their parents about their anatomical body parts are more likely to report sexual abuse and express their boundaries.
"For example, tell children that it is never OK for an adult who is not a parent or a doctor to touch them in the specific areas that you have explained to them," Goodwin said.
For those specific areas, use the correct terminology, for example: penis, vulva, vagina, breasts and buttocks. Do not use euphemisms, such as cookie, square, weenie, down there or willy, to replace that terminology.
Educating yourself and your child
Helping your child understand consent means understanding consent yourself, plus having resources you can turn to as you prepare to educate your children.
The internet has a wealth of information on the topic, but for deep dives on consent and its implications, Goodwin and Jackson recommended these books: "My Body Belongs to Me: A Parent's Guide: How to Talk With Young Children About Personal Boundaries, Respect and Consent," by Elizabeth Schroeder, M.S.W., for adults, and "C Is for Consent," by Eleanor Morrison, for children.