Sexual assault is, unfortunately, having a cultural moment. Between high-profile sexual misconduct in Hollywood and a baffling government push towards leniency for male campus sex offenders, parents are being forced to confront the fears about the conduct of their sons and daughters and their acquaintances. No parent wants their child to grow up to be a victim or a perpetrator, which means teaching about consent early is crucial. Though some may dismiss early discussions about bodies as reactionary or inappropriate, the truth is that consent is not about sex. It’s about boundaries. And understanding boundaries is crucial for children.
“Consent is basically permission to do something now or an agreement to be able to do something later,” says Stacey Honowitz, supervisor of the Florida State Attorney’s Office Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit. She says that when parents establish firm boundaries around access to things like snacks or television time, they are implicitly teaching a child about consent. For instance, when a child asks if they can eat a cookie or watch a show, a parent might give consent by saying yes. If not, the kid is obliged to respect the boundary or face the natural consequences.
After boundaries are firmly enforced around the material world, lessons of consent can then become explicitly about personal boundaries. That discussion can happen with kids as young as four because they are already starting to learn and be curious about their bodies. “You start to tell them that their privates are private and that ‘no’ means ‘no,’” says Honowitz. “That means if you go over to touch somebody, without their permission, you can get in trouble. That’s really what it boils down to.”
The trick is that, when parents teach this lesson, they also need to model appropriate behavior. This is often the hardest part. The fact is that parents are often really bad at respecting their children’s physical boundaries. But here’s the deal: If a kid doesn’t want to be hugged, kissed, tickled, or wrestled, don’t hug, kiss, tickle, and wrestle them.
“They have the right to say no,” says Honowitz. “You’re telling them, ‘You are the boss of your own body.’”
One of the things that kids will figure out rapidly is that consent can get fuzzy. Parents aren’t going to ask permission to catch kids about to fall off a porch. When they start to understand what the logical ends of consent are, they become capable of starting to understand how consent is impossible for impaired people. Still, the conversation about consent and drugs or alcohol can wait. Five-year-olds don’t need to have that discussion yet, but it may be worth bringing up around age 10 — even if kids aren’t touching alcohol, they need tools to understand pop culture, which is rife with drunk coeds.
If kids struggle to understand the idea — and some kids are naturally physical so that can happen — the key is to focus on permission. Kids are used to that word. They understand they should ask someone to borrow a toy or a pencil. If they model the behavior without fully grasping why consent is important, that’s a start. They’ll end up taking cues from their parents regardless.
“You ask them, ‘May I give you a hug?’ or ‘May I give you a kiss?'” Honowitz says. “If they say no, you show them you respect them.”