The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s never too early to teach children about consent and boundaries


Children need to learn about healthy consent and boundaries.

That might seem like a simple concept, but there are a lot of ideas and practices surrounding this topic that need to be unpacked and examined.

For example, how soon do we start these discussions? There’s a misconception that ideas about consent and bodily autonomy should be lumped in with sexual education, but that’s actually far too late. Healthy boundaries apply to so much more than just sex or partnership, and we should begin teaching our children as early as possible.

Of course, these discussions need to be age-appropriate, and parents might struggle with figuring out how to communicate a huge topic like consent to someone whose vocabulary and understanding are still developing.

Carol Horton, a Texas psychotherapist who has worked extensively with children who are the survivors of abuse or witnesses of domestic violence, and Joanna Schroeder, editor and co-author of the wildly popular article Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21, have both offered suggestions on how parents can approach these topics with preschool-aged children.

Model consent for your children
Parents can model consent and boundaries for small children “by respecting their personhood,” says Horton. For example, she said, parents can give even small children “the opportunity to make choices and have opinions (within the bounds of what needs to occur, of course). ‘It’s time to go to bed now. Would you rather wear your monkey pajamas or your princess nightgown?’ Or, ‘Which vitamins do you like better, the chewable dinosaurs or the gummy robots?'”

Be respectful of other adults
Parents who are respectful towards each other and each other’s bodies are modeling good boundaries, Horton said. This should be obvious, but it bears saying: When kids see their parents hitting or screaming at each other, they get the message that violence is how you get your way, or how you should communicate.

Remember that your child is watching and learning from your interactions. Of course there will be times when you are rightfully upset or angry with another adult, but if your child is within earshot make sure that you are managing this in a way that communicates respect for the other person’s thoughts, feelings and body.

Your child’s body belongs to them
“Another important way to empower your child is to teach them that their body belongs to them,” Horton says. They get to decide if they want to share hugs and kisses with someone. If they want someone to stop tickling, it should stop immediately. Parents shouldn’t dictate, for example, that they kiss grandpa goodnight. “Let them decide. They could kiss him, hug him, blow him a kiss, give him a high five, or whatever they’re most comfortable with.”

Teach your child body safety
“Teaching body safety should be a regular and ongoing part of child rearing, as natural as telling them how to use 9-1-1 in a real emergency or what they should do if they smell smoke,” says Horton. “It can be as simple and direct as: There are parts of your body that are special and need to be kept private so you will stay safe. They are the parts that get covered up by your swimsuit. ” You can explain to your child that sometimes children need help with things related to their bodies, like taking a bath or when they go to the doctor. A parent or a doctor or a babysitter might touch those private body parts to help them. But also explain that “cleaning and checking are real quick, and that kind of touching is never kept a secret.”

Everyone gets to decide about their own bodies
“Curiosity and exploration are natural,” explains Horton. “A good rule of thumb is to let your child know it’s okay to ask you any questions.” Then answer those questions matter-of-factly, and try to keep the information limited to the question at hand. It’s imperative to teach them that everyone has a right to decide about their own bodies. “That means they shouldn’t touch or look at another child’s private parts either.”

If your child is curious about how parts work or why theirs is different than someone of another sex, Schroeder says, “look for a medical diagram or a book designed to teach young children about anatomy or sex and show them the drawings. Explain to them that their brother or sister or friend’s privates aren’t for us to use for our own curiosity, but that wondering about genitals is okay and you’ll help them find their answers in a way that doesn’t require anyone’s body or privacy to be compromised.”

Use the right words for private parts
Using made-up names is confusing and it also conveys the idea that those parts are somehow shameful. But the biggest danger is that not knowing the proper words makes it difficult for a child to get help if they need it. Horton says she once had a client who had been taught that her vagina was her “purse.” The child told her teacher about abuse, but the teacher didn’t initially understand because the child was using the wrong word.

Keep dialogue about consent going as your child ages
Don’t just end it at one conversation. As your child grows, the conversation also needs to grow and change. “The conversations about bodies and sexuality need to be on-going, extremely open, and ever-evolving,” says Schroeder. “Never shy away from a question or make your kid feel bad for asking, even if to you it seems weird or creepy. The best thing about kids is their ability to ask questions we are too ashamed or embarrassed to ask. Be glad for every single one of them and keep the dialogue open.”

End on a positive note
Topics like consent and inappropriate touching can sometimes be overwhelming or even frightening for a child. Make sure that your discussions include reassurances that touching from people we know and love can be a wonderful thing. We don’t want our children growing up to think all touching is bad – the truth is that many types of touching are important for healthy emotional development.

Horton suggests brainstorming with your children about what kinds of touches they do like. For example, maybe they like hugs from Mommy, or having their hair brushed. They might like back rubs, high fives, or sitting on Grandpa’s lap while they read a book. Just make sure that you remind them that even if they like a certain type of touching sometimes (or even most of the time), they’re allowed to say no thank you, not right now whenever it doesn’t feel good. After all, it’s their body – they get to decide.

Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer and cat enthusiast who blogs about feminism, mental health, and parenting. You can follow her on twitter at @anne_theriault or her blog at The Belle Jar.

Like On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and advice. You can sign up here for our newsletter.

You might also be interested in:

Talking to small children about race

Why we have to stop assuming boys will be jerks

Help! My 10-year-old hates change