Yes! Nurturing the Power of Consent in Kids

Teach them early, teach them well

Consent. We often think of this as a word from the grown-up world. We debate over and over in court whether an assault victim has given it or not. Actually, we debate whether the perpetrator believed it had been given, as if the fact that we are here in court is no reason to suspect it hadn’t been. We think that upon sexual awakening, there is a sudden suppression of all sense and good judgment, as if the understanding of what consent entails were once completely developed but has been hijacked by hormones.

Consent applies across many domains. Notably of late, we associate it with sexual activity, but in a kid’s world it figures prominently in terms of giving and taking toys, playing games, and affectionate gestures. Knowing the role of consent in these activities carries over to not-yet-experienced ones–a transferable skill, if you will. Taught rigorously from an early age, the reflex to assert and respect consent or lack of it may become well-honed enough to be able to interpret subtler messages, understand one’s own right to object, and resist one’s own problematic urges. Long before kids are sexually active, they need to know what consent looks like, how to ask for it and how to give it.

Modeling consent

Consent is given by us and to us (or not), and like all the prosocial standards that civilization depends on, it is developed and reinforced through teaching. Yes, there is a basic instinct from infancy to express willingness for or displeasure toward events and acts, but this fails to acknowledge the complexity of managing those acts and our reactions to them. Children do not simply “pick up on” all the intricacies of human relationships. Like patience, accountability or sense of responsibility, if caregivers fail to teach the finer nuances of consent explicitly by showing and telling how to apply and interpret consent, whether their own or with respect to others, then we may find ourselves in a messy debate about what consent actually means and looks like. Sound familiar?

Consent is pretty simple – it is clear and unequivocal. It is the result of an unambiguous communication between parties and not assumptions about what the other wants, nor is it what someone wishes them to want. It is the presence of an enthusiastic “Yes!” or another affirmative statement or action, rather than the absence of “No”. It happens without coercion or pressure – physical or emotional.

The lessons begin with how you as a caregiver model your own concept of consent. A classic example is tickling. Adults have long stood by their right to tickle kids to the point of abject hysteria. And not the funny kind. This, upheld by the Lamest. Defense. Ever: “But it’s fun!” Get something straight: it is not fun if the kid says it’s not. Not at all. Not ever. It conveys the message, “Your ‘no’ is meaningless if I [or someone else with authority] say it is.” This can have powerful implications ever after. So first, let’s get it through all of our heads that if it’s not OK for your boss to tackle you to the ground and dig his meaty fingers into your ribs, armpits and wherever else he finds a soft spot, it’s not OK for you to do either.

If that has happened to you, and you were afraid to object in no uncertain terms, you have been let down, my friend. If it happened and you did not agree enthusiastically or you DID protest, you have definitely been violated. Let’s not repeat the grievous oversight inflicted upon you, and let’s give our kids the tools to express their rightful voices and, just as importantly, to hear others’.

Planting the idea of consent

Believe it or not, consent is easy to model and determine. How do you know what someone wants or doesn’t want? ASK. Just ask. In everyday situations, even with toddlers, do it with almost anything that is safe to ask about (notwithstanding thwarting a dash toward an open staircase – that one can be forgiven. We’ll talk about non-negotiable things shortly).

“Can I take your stuffy while you eat so he’s nice and clean when you’re done?”

“The kitty doesn’t like it when you pull his tail. It hurts him.”

“Let’s ask your sister if you can come into her room.”

You can instill habits that encourage thinking before acting while also inspiring a sense of authority over their own bodies and minds, and you can do this at every stage of childhood.

Teaching consent by ages-and-stages

Up to school-age

Very young children are extremely good at absorbing information without requiring elaborate explanations. Witness how easily they acquire language without grammar lessons! Simple repetition of the expectations around consent, as if they are exercises as ordinary as teaching kindness or “right from wrong”, is all that needs to happen. Asking for, getting and giving permission to touch or be touched; using the words “no”, “stop” and “yes” freely and respecting them when they are used by others; helping them learn about reading facial expressions, body language and about listening to their own “gut” feelings. These are all techniques that will ingrain the concept early.

This is an age where we start another classic that bears repeating (this one never seems to want to go the way of the dinosaur): under no circumstances is it justifiable to force a child to kiss or be kissed, hug or be hugged, by anyone. Uncle, Grandma, even a parent. This demand can reinforce the notion that people who expect affection get affection whether you want it or not. If the child is reluctant in any way, suggest a high-five, thumbs-up or some other friendly alternative. If it’s a no-go, just let it go.

Older children

Of course you have been teaching your little one about his body and that it belongs to him and him alone. But as self-awareness grows and changes start to take place, or are imminent, it is imperative that shame and secrecy about bodies and their functions, and indeed about the very person they are turning out to be, be forsaken. As a caregiver, being approachable and forthcoming about the facts and feelings that arise in these years will set a tone of confidence and pride that is essential to self-protection and recognizing that others are entitled to the same. Their emerging sense of style, their developing interests and their expressions as unique individuals are cause for respect and celebration, but can paint them as targets in some eyes. These changes can even put them in a favourable position, say, if they are socio-economically or physically advantaged and it may be tempting to use those traits to the detriment of others. Bullying often escalates at this stage, so understanding that it is neither acceptable nor inevitable to endure, allow or perpetrate abuse can be achieved by instilling a deep sense of their and others’ entitlement to safety and tolerance.

What can you do if your child is being bullied? Assure him he has an advocate and you will work together to address it. Emphasize that his being targeted is not his fault, but an issue originating in the bully who might either be unable to find the words to get what he wants peacefully or might feel so badly about his life that the only thing he can think to do is make other people feel badly along with him. With this kind of talk, you are encouraging empathy and critical thinking while underscoring that there is nothing wrong with your child, and reassuring him that he never has to tolerate it.

What if your child is the bully or she exhibits behaviour that could be construed as bullying? First make it clear that hitting, insulting and excluding are unacceptable ways to persuade others. Encourage her strength of character, but teach her that leadership is sometimes about compromise and listening and that games are the most fun when everyone is enjoying them. Eight-year-olds are not subtle creatures – they need sustained and understanding guidance to learn how to exert sophisticated and effective influence. Try “How could you do this differently?” conversations - “What could you say to Joey to get him to play tag instead of telling him he has to go home?”

Teens and young adults 

Unsurprisingly, much of the discussion for this group centres around their emerging sexuality – how they express it, who they express it to, and how they feel it is perceived. Also not a surprise, things get tricky, sensitive and complex. Locker room talk and games that entail contact with others’ bodies are very common at this age. Emphasize that this kind of talk and play is reductive – their peers are not objects to be slapped, pinched or have their body parts discussed. Adolescents are easily embarrassed so appealing to their empathy and asking them to imagine how it would feel if they overheard a classmate describing their body, even in a favourable way, may give them pause for thought. Girls especially may believe that being so discussed or treated is a positive thing and agree to sexual behaviour even if it’s not necessarily wanted, because they so often perceive that their value as a body exceeds their value as a whole person. Teaching such respect combined with normalizing talk about healthy sex empowers young people to express their wishes to their potential partners and to refrain from uninvited touching.

Teenagers are “touchy” in the metaphorical sense too, so try to refrain from teasing or embarrassing them about their crushes, as it can discourage honest conversation when it’s actually wanted. Speak of it only with respect and try not to be TOO nosy. Yes, you need to have a good sense of with whom they’re spending time, but consent applies in the sense that they are entitled to privacy and can share when they decide to. This, of course, does not apply if abuse is suspected, in which case stepping fully in is crucial.

Sowing the seeds of empathy

An important element that permeates an internalized understanding of consent is empathy. Components of empathy include the capacity to distinguish one’s own feelings from those of others, the ability to imagine another’s perspective and being able to manage one’s own reactions. These skills are more easily acquired in an environment where their own emotional needs are consistently being met, they are taught techniques to cope with their own negative feelings and their behaviours are motivated by internal self-control and not external reward or fear.

Nurturing empathy is especially relevant to how your child will behave toward others. The two are inherently linked: it is almost a given that if empathy exists, there will be a concern for consent between people. However, as kids are wont to be impulsive (what’s that, you say?), you pretty much have to harp on them to remember to use their empathy in this way. Setting up opportunities to practice it is setting kids up to succeed as friends and as leaders.

Growing a boss!

There is the possibility that your child will not know that what is being done to them is wrong or not realize that only they get to decide what is done to them (okay, maybe things like vaccinations and dental procedures excepted – again, stand by for the exceptions). Predators rely on tactics like convincing children that they deserve what’s happening, that what’s happening is OK because the adult says so or because it feels good, and of course threatening that it all must remain a secret or bad things will follow. Children frequently find it hard to say no to an adult. Being granted early-on the permission and authority to do so will empower them in later years when even peers may press for things not mutually agreeable. Finding ways to empower your children to be the boss of their own bodies and minds is crucial parenting work.

When ‘no’ doesn’t fly

As mentioned, there will be times when consent is, say, not on the table. You’ve been teaching it diligently, and it’s becoming ingrained. This can work against them (or you!) in matters of safety, health, education, respect, and too many other scenarios to mention. How do you convincingly pick your battles–and win–without confounding the you-must-offer-your-consent rule?

For older kids, dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. You can consider and discuss the exceptions beforehand, and because you can’t always anticipate every event (Surprise! Parenting is process!), it may have to happen after the fact. You can identify things that are dangerous – like not being buckled into the car seat – or scary –  like not telling you where they’re going. And with that you have the responsibility of explaining why they can’t just decide for themselves, and of being consistent (and calm) with your reactions if they break the rule. Treating these examples as a conversation where you offer reasons and consequences gives kids a chance to understand and “buy in” to the rules, and models respect.

For little ones, well, reason is a dreamland and attention spans are short. But they understand simple explanations like, “No, no, that’s ouchie!” paired with making a face that conveys it – babies are surprisingly empathetic. You can present things they might be inclined to resist, like tooth-brushing or bed time (Even self-determination needs a nap!) through unwavering routine – a funny game, a story, a rock-a-bye, a snuggle – so that it doesn’t feel like you’re “making” them do it. Unpleasant things like needles can be coupled with pain-lessening techniques and distractions (bless that short attention span!) that alleviate the ouchies more quickly. Soon enough, you’ll have explanations to offer that make sense, and a child who will be ready to hear them.

If all of this seems “too much” or that your child is too young, remember that these are actually simple messages to incorporate into everyday life from a very early age – only their consequences are complex and profound. These lessons reach beyond the perils of sexual assault – they contribute to the cultivation of citizens who will grow up to be strong, healthy leaders and compassionate people with well-developed communication skills. Parenting is hard, but growing up is also hard. Investing in the gift of this insight is well worth the protective benefits it will engender.

Further Reading

From The Good Men Project website

The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent

Great resources for teaching empathy from Parenting Science website

Teaching empathy: Evidence-based tips for fostering empathy in children

Social skills activities for children and teens: Evidence-based games and exercises

Reading for kids

Educate2Empower Publishing in Australia creates kids’ books designed to teach “body safety, consent, gender equality and respectful relationships” in a children’s story format. 

Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept by Janeen Sanders tells the story in a gentle and non-graphic way of young Lord Alfred who is abused by his mother’s employer and finds the strength to tell her.


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