How to Teach Your Pre-Schooler about Consent
I heard and read lots of discussions about consent before my babies were born. Lots of creative ways to frame conversations with kids. Lots of child-friendly words to help them understand. All of which I was (and still am) committed to implementing as they got older and could understand those things. But, as my kids became toddlers and started to talk and find their own voices, I quickly realized that there are TONS of easy opportunities to teach them the value of consent from an early age. Here are four ways we weave those conversations into our daily interactions with our kids:
1. Stop when your child says “no”
It is so easy to ignore a child’s voice when we’re playing a game with them that we think they should love – pretending we’re a monster and chasing them around the house, tickling them, throwing them up in the air. There are definitely times when I catch myself continuing to tickle my kiddos or rough-house with them after they’ve said “no” in the midst of their giggles. But, we try our hardest to really listen well for no and to stop immediately when we hear it. Yes, there are times, where they may say no but still want to play and that’s okay. I stop first in response to their no and then if they look at me expectantly, ready to keep playing, I ask, “Do you want me to tickle you again?” and respond accordingly after they’ve voiced what they want. It is so important for them to learn that they have a voice and to grow to expect that their voice will be listened to.
2. The “please stop” rule
I grew up thinking the words “please stop” were the magic words. I was the older sister by 2 years, so, naturally, I liked to push my sister’s buttons. I remember many times, though, in the midst of my bothering, she would say “please stop” and I knew that if I dared continue to push after hearing those words there would be big consequences. I really believe those simple words had a big effect on my understanding of consent as an adult. I learned as a child that someone’s words, with regard to their body, matter immensely. I also learned that my words, with regard to my body, matter just as much. Fast forward to my own parenting, my middle child is currently 3 and has an unbelievable ability to push his sisters’ buttons. Needless to say, we get lots of practice on this one.
3. Tell them why it matters
In addition to consequences, when my kids don’t stop when they hear “please stop,” we use it as an opportunity to talk with them about why we expect them to stop. They’re 5 and 3, so we try to keep it short and sweet. Usually, we say something like, “That is your sister’s body, so only she gets to decide what happens to it, not you.” We also tell them that the same applies to their body, “It is the same for you. Your body belongs to you and only YOU get to decide what happens to it.” Of course, as they get older, we can have more detailed conversations, but at this age, the basics of consent still fit quite easily into everyday conversations.
4. Teach them to ask before touching other people
My daughter has been a snuggle-bug since the day she was born. Putting her down anywhere that was not on top of another person was a sure way to get her to start screaming. To this day, she still loves snuggles and hugs from mom, dad and friends. But of course, not all of her friends love hugs quite as much as she does. So, we’ve had lots of great opportunities to teach her how to ask first before touching. I’ve found for especially snuggly little ones like her, it can be helpful to have this conversation before a play date, rather than right in the moment. With my daughter, I try to remember to talk with her on the way to our visits with friends to remind her that if she’d like to give someone a hug please make sure to ask them permission first.
Preschoolers are smart and can have a great understanding of their own bodies and respecting other people’s space at an early age. We don’t need to wait until they get older to explain it to them. We also don’t need to have a long, drawn-out conversation with them at this age. Simple reminders and boundaries woven throughout their regular experiences can make a world of difference in how they understand consent. And I find the more you’re able to weave it in naturally in the early years, the easier it is to understand in their older years.