Teaching kids body privacy, personal agency, and consent begins while they’re in diapers
It’s not an unusual scene: the kids are running through the house, chasing each other, playing tag, tackling, tickling. Friends are over and the girls have jumped in with the boys. Everyone is giggling and having a great time. Then I notice my boys (ages four and six) corner their little friend (a four year old girl) and I notice her face changes expression. What was once a cheeky smile and glint in her eye is replaced by apprehension and reservation. She no longer wants to play this chasing game but she doesn’t have the words to say no or articulate why.
Although I don’t like to swoop in an interrupt my kids’ play (I think they often learn best by figuring things out on their own), I make an exception.
“Boys, STOP! Immediately.” They turn and look at me, surprised—shocked, even—at the sternness and urgency of my tone.
“Nella,* would you like the boys to stop now?” I ask her. She nods her head and smiles again. [*Name changed for privacy.]
Nella runs off playing and I pull the boys aside.
They haven’t done anything wrong. Everyone has been happily playing and getting along. They were doing nothing inappropriate. And yet they’re still learning how to read one another’s signals. It’s particularly hard when children aren’t able to verbalize their limits or what they’re comfortable with.
Again (for what feels like the thousandth time), I launch into discussion about the issue of consent with my boys. . . because that’s exactly what this little (common) scenario illustrates.
Teaching consent must start early
I’ve been using the word consent with my children since they were toddlers. Not because I care about the size or scope of words they use, but because certain words need not be watered down. They’re little, they’re still learning, but they’re learning (present, ongoing tense) and that’s the best I can do as a parent—inspire them and intentionally lead them in the process. This is not a one-off conversation, but one that’s already happened many times over and will continue to happen and mature over time as my boys grow in their comprehension of the subject.
The recent Stanford rape case has been all over news and social media, causing people outrage over the slap on the hand punishment the perpetrator received. Rightfully so—it’s a case and consequence that demands our outrage. It should spur all of us into collective action to stand up for the rights of girls and women and teach our young people the dire consequences of not heeding the principles of consent.
But it has to start way before our kids hit puberty, and most definitely needs to start well before they hit the college scene. These conversations (and the modeling to go along with it) needs to start while they’re still in diapers for boy and girl children alike.
I’m sure Ryan and I are not getting it entirely right, but we’ve been doing our best to teach our kids about these issues from the day they were born. Below are some specifics—hopefully these ideas and practices serve as helpful to you as you grapple with these issues in your own home.
How we’re teaching our children body privacy, personal agency, and consent:
Don’t require affection.
As much as it warms our hearts to see our kids express affection in a healthy way, we will never require or cajole them into it. Yes, this means even to well-meaning grandparents or other trusted family members and friends. If the kids don’t want to give someone a hug or a kiss, it is within their power to refuse and we don’t allow others to violate that, even adult family members. (This means we will absolutely intervene if a child is resisting and an adult swoops in regardless of our child’s posture toward them.)
Respecting personal agency.
When others are over at bedtime (or during good-byes), we always say to the kids, “Time to say goodbye/goodnight! Why don’t you give everyone a hug or high five or whatever you’re comfortable with?” and then we leave it up to the children to determine what makes them feel comfortable and safe in that particular moment. Sometimes the entire group gets a round of hugs, whether or not the kids know everyone well. Other times a verbal “good night” is the only thing they offer. This is their prerogative and we fully support it.
If we expect our kids to learn to respect the physical boundaries of others, we have to first teach them that their own physical boundaries are important and worthy of our respect. If we don’t respect the boundaries they put up around physical comfort and affection among “safe” people, how will we know they can do so around “unsafe” people—whoever they might be—or people they feel threatened or overpowered by? (And we all know that statistically abusers are generally already known to the children—so are they “safe” or not?) Expecting our children to truly believe their no means no (and others’ no also mean no), means we must also respect their no’s even when we’d prefer they responded differently. As hard as it can be around close family like grandparents (or even siblings), it’s important we never force our kids to be affectionate, because doing so reinforces the notion that their refusal or personal values and comfort/safety are secondary to appeasing the adult involved. (It’s also important we recognize the power dynamic at play there.) We can encourage affection and polite manners without violating our children’s personal agency. Start by offering choices to be verbal, wave, blow a kiss, give a high five, hug, etc. at greetings and goodbyes and go from there.
One yes doesn’t mean a forever yes.
We also have to teach our kids that a one-time yes isn’t an always yes. Just because you felt like hugging Grandpa or Grandma or Uncle Eddie last time they left doesn’t mean you’re required to hug them this time. This can be a sensitive one with family, but adults must recognize that the child’s sense of safety is more important than an adult’s feelings of rejection or offense or disappointment. If they don’t already understand on their own, any respectful adult that loves the children in their life will understand if they are given an explanation by us as parents. (If the adult is unwilling to put themselves in the child’s shoes or heed your explanation and wishes as the child’s parent, well then there are other issues to contend with. Um, good luck to you!)
Words and body language sometimes conflict.
When roughhousing or tickling our kids (which they love, of course!), we have a strict rule that as soon as anyone in the mix says “don’t!” or “stop!” or “no!” we have to cease immediately even if they are still smiling and giggling. It can be confusing when someone is smiling and laughing and also saying no, but we have to teach them that the “no” is even more powerful than the smile. Even if our kids are teasing “stop it!” but actually want us to continue, abruptly stopping and respecting their verbal “no” helps teach them that their words are powerful. Increasingly they will learn to use the right words in the right context while also learning to take the words of others at face value.
Actively help them learn to read body language and signals.
Like the case with our little friend Nella, we also have to teach them to read others’ body language. This social skill is much harder and obviously increases with maturity, but that’s where we as parents have to set the example and be deliberate to pause for teachable moments. We do that by observing our own kids’ body language and articulating it as we’re able (“You look like this might not be fun anymore. Is that true? Would you like me to stop?”) and also calling it out for them to see like I did with Nella. I wasn’t upset with my kids for not picking up her subtle signals, but I did want to make sure they saw that it was important enough for me to immediately intervene. Our chat after the event helped to teach them why I responded the way I did and reminded them why it’s important to grow in these areas. Sometimes it’s not as simple as a “no means no.” Sometimes no answer (not expressly granting consent) also means no.
Ask permission—start early with modeling.
It should never be awkward to ask permission. If we see one of our children relating to a younger child with affection and going in for a hug or to pick them up, we remind our children to ask permission first. “Can I give you a hug?” If it’s a baby, then we also ask the parent: “Can I pat her head please?” We also do this by modeling permission to our kids. Rather than just pulling out the hairbrush and yanking the knots out of their hair, we can say, “You look like you’re having trouble getting those tangles out, would you like me to help you?” We wait for the child’s permission, which at times only comes after reassuring them we’ll be as gentle as possible. Asking permission does not make you a permissive parent, it makes you a respectful one.
Teach them to care for their bodies.
Another way to teach body consent is by allowing children to have some say over how they take care of their bodies as early as possible. This doesn’t mean allowing them to only brush their teeth when they feel like it, but it does mean explaining why certain things will require your intervention for their own safety. “You must brush your teeth so you don’t damage them and get a sore mouth, but you can decide whether you do it before or after you put on your jammies.” We also do this with food, teaching kids to listen to their body and ultimately bare the consequences of not finishing their dinner if they don’t love the food (natural consequence: they get hungry). Teaching children that their bodies belong to them doesn’t start with “stranger danger” talks, it starts at the dinner table and in the bath and while getting dressed. It starts with helping them to own and care for their body and to gain a sense of personal agency from a young age.
Sharing verses giving.
I’m all for teaching kids how to share, but in the midst of that leaning process, we need to consider their need to learn internal motivation for sharing, not just external obedience. In our house, we use the term “be generous” much more than sharing. For example, if two kids are fighting over the use of a toy we might ask, “how can you be generous in this situation?” Often they will come up with the solution themselves (“How about you play with it until lunch time and I can have it in the afternoon?”). It doesn’t always work out smoothly, but as the kids get older they are getting better and better at coming up with their own ideas of how to be generous and kind to each other. Toddlers can’t come up with a solution like this on their own of course, but you can suggest one and get their buy in. This kind of intention is time consuming and can be frustrating, especially when you know that making a demand (“You’ve had enough! Give Joe a turn with the toy now!”) will get the immediate results you’d like to see. But ultimately, teaching kids they have the power to make personal decisions that effect others is all part of learning respect and consent and love.
Allow kids to have different opinions.
Do we demand unflinching obedience from our children? Or do we teach our children it’s okay to have their own opinions, concerns, and questions? As a parent, I feel like there are a thousand opportunities a day to shut down my kids’ free thinking and make them comply with my wishes. This is a hard one for me. Sometimes I don’t want to take the time to explain, I don’t want to answer questions, I don’t want to hear why someone thinks it’s important to skip nap time even though we have nap time every single day. In those instances I’d much rather have simple obedience—no questions asked, no alternatives suggested, no bargaining cards drawn. But ultimately, I’m more concerned with my kids learning internal regulation and wise decision-making than blind obedience. How can I expect them to learn how to make their own good choices when faced with pressure if I don’t allow them to explore having differing opinions under the safety of our own roof? If I want my kids to be able to hold their own with someone they perceive in authority that puts them in a compromising or unsafe situation, then it starts with me at home being willing to let them engage in conversation with me when they disagree or don’t understand. [See also: Parenting to build relationships, not robots]
Specifics of body privacy.
While teaching body privacy, use anatomically correct names for genitals (this removes the implication that certain parts are shameful or can’t be talked about). We also make sure the kids know that sometimes those private parts need to be touched by a safe adult (when helping to bathe, wipe a bottom, or visit the doctor for instance), but when they do need to be touched it is only to clean or briefly examine. It’s always quick, and it’s never, ever a secret.
Don’t have secrets.
Along those same lines, we have a guideline in our family that there are no secrets, only surprises. As daddy’s birthday is approaching, we might keep his present a surprise, but it’s never a secret. While our children are still children, we want them to know and trust that everything is fair game to be shared in our family, especially if it’s a ‘secret’ thing that makes them feel uncomfortable. Rather than calling everything a secret, we differentiate between privacy, surprises, and secrets. If mom and dad need to talk about something that’s not appropriate for the kids to be included in, it’s not us sharing secrets, it’s us talking privately. Banning the word ‘secret’ from your vocabulary is hard at first, but you get used to it fairly quickly and we think it’s important for these early years. As the kids get older, we will begin to introduce the concept of “speaking in confidence” and how and when that’s also appropriate.
Three important subjects with lots of overlap
Body privacy, personal agency, and consent are three fairly distinct subjects. . . and yet they have a lot of overlap. All three of these areas require intentional parenting and there are plenty of resources out there for parents who want to learn more about how to lead your kids in conversations surrounding these issues. (A quick google search will easily get you started.) For the purpose of this post, I’ve left all three lumped in together—hopefully it’s not too much information all at once. (Not the best blog post writing strategy considering how short our internet attention spans are these days–yikes!)
I’m not a parenting or child development expert, but I am an intentional parent who’s spent a lot of time thinking through and learning about these issues. I hope you find our experiences helpful. Like you, we’re trying our hardest to do what’s best for our kids. Surely we’re making some mistakes, but hopefully the things we’re doing right will outweigh our missteps. That’s the best you and I can hope for.
We’re in this parenting gig together so let’s share what’s working and what’s not. Please add your experiences, suggestions, or resources related to teaching children body privacy, personal agency, and consent in the comments.
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