Fears about sexual assault and rape are top of mind for many modern parents. As kids grow, the conduct of sons, daughters, and their acquaintances feels increasingly fraught in the era of #MeToo and with alleged child sex traffickers like Jeffery Epstein making headlines. No parent wants their child becoming a victim or a perpetrator of sexual assault. And that makes early lessons about consent absolutely crucial. But that doesn’t mean the lessons need to be frightening or panic-inducing. In fact, those discussions don’t even need to be about sex. Because, essentially, consent is about boundaries.
“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.
How to Teach Young Kids About Consent
- Teaching a child about consent means teaching them about boundaries. So establish boundaries in the home and natural consequences when those boundaries are crossed.
- Explicit lessons about physical boundaries can begin as soon as children are becoming curious about bodies, around 4 years old.
- Lessons around physical boundaries start simple with reinforcing the idea that no means no and that children are not allowed to touch another person without permission.
- Parents need to respect their children’s boundaries, too. Model consent by not tickling, hugging, kissing, or wrestling children when they say no.
- If children are struggling to understand, couch the lesson in the idea of asking permission, which may be easier for some kids to understand.
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.’ ”
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.”