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Teaching Consent to Toddlers

I feel really, really strongly about teaching my children about consent. The catch? It has nothing to do with sex. My kids are not middle- or high-schoolers; they're toddlers.

So, what is consent anyway? Oftentimes it's talked about in the context of sexual contact, but it actually includes many areas of life. The Oxford definition is simply "to give permission for something to happen."

Why am I starting these conversations with my kids so early, and how does that even work?

consent means teaching children to respect yes and no Black handwritten words "yes" with a checkmark and "no" with an X
Consent means respecting "yes" and "no"

The way I see it, consent is vital to...everything. It gives people a strong sense of self and autonomy over their body, and allows people of all ages to establish healthy boundaries. Because I see consent as so foundational (and, honestly, countercultural), I feel that educating kids about it starts in infancy. My goal is to make respecting a child's consent a regular practice in my home. Hopefully, it won't be "weird" to start talking about consent as it relates to sex or other more serious topics as my children age. If a child learns what consent actually IS now, they'll hopefully be able to notice more easily when it's being violated in the future.

Here are some ways that I have started introducing the concept of consent to my kids. I do not pretend to be perfect in this area, and I'm still learning about ways to do better. But I try to be as consistent as I can and I encourage my family and friends to do the same when interacting with my kids.

1.) Allowing children to choose their own clothing, hairstyle, nail polish, shoes, etc. Most of the time, a child's choice in clothing has little to no consequence at all. We may be a bit embarrassed by their fashion sense when we're out in public, but that doesn't actually hurt anything in the long run. Of course, you are the parent, so it's totally reasonable to nix clothing choices that are clearly not safe (ie, wearing a swimsuit during a blizzard).

2.) Asking to hug or kiss a child before doing so, and respecting them if the answer is "no." At first this seemed really weird and unnatural to me, and it took a lot of practice. But now it is second nature to ask my daughter, "Can Mama give you a big hug?" Occasionally she says, "No," in which case I say, "Okay!" and we move on with our day. I hope this shows her that she decides who interacts with her body, and on what terms, and if anyone doesn't respect that boundary, it's weird and not right. (confession: I am not always 100% perfect about adhering to this rule, as my kids are pretty stinkin' cute, and sometimes a spontaneous hug sneaks its way in)

3.) Stop tickling or roughhousing if a child says "no," pushes you away, or otherwise indicates that they don't like it. Tickling was used "against" me as a kid; maybe you had a similar experience. I am sure that the adults in my life did not have malicious intent, but I remember being super frustrated that I was clearly saying, "No! Stop!" and the response was, "You're laughing! You like being tickled!" It was essentially telling me that my words don't matter, and someone more powerful than me ultimately got to decide what happened with my body. Respecting a child's autonomy when they say "no" is an important way to show them that their words DO matter, and it's normal for others to respect their boundaries.

4.) Allowing flexibility with how much a child eats at mealtimes. This can be a really, really tricky one, so please take my words with a boulder of salt. I am not a dietician, and there are a LOT of variables to consider here, such as individual dietary needs, medical conditions, family customs surrounding food, and religious or cultural food traditions. Please consult with a professional if you feel like your family could benefit from one. My personal philosophy around meals is one of the division of responsibility: it is my job to supply the food and set expectations for meals (such as what time the food is served, where it is served, and basic table manners) and it is my child's job to decide how much to eat. If my child indicates that they're done eating, it is not respecting them by saying, "You're not leaving this table until you clear your plate!" It's essentially teaching them to not listen to the cues their body is telling them about fullness. It's also signaling to a child that someone in authority has more power over their body than they do.

Maybe some of these ideas sounded weird to you or made you feel deeply uncomfortable. That's okay! But I would encourage you to explore WHY something made you feel uncomfortable. My desire is to create a home in which my children feel safe, and I'm sure that's your goal too! For me, part of this safe environment includes a strong respect of my children's consent and their ability to decide what happens to their bodies. Their bodies are THEIRS.

Black and white photo of a child with buzzed hair, eyes closed, screaming into a studio microphone
Kids have a voice. Let them use it!

So what about you? What are ways that you're teaching your children about consent?

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