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 versus 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.
Rachael16 June 2016 at 3:03 am
I love the distinction between privacy, surprises, and secrets! That will be a really useful tool for me with our boys that I hadn’t heard of before.
Adriel Booker20 June 2016 at 9:57 am
Glad that was helpful Rachael. x
Adriel Booker recently posted..Tiny house, big love: Our life in a renovated vintage caravan
Patty Vega23 October 2017 at 9:08 pm
Hi Adriel, lovely piece. I agree and have been trying to implement similar with my 6 yo since he was little. Just writing to recommend you correct subtitle verses to versus.
Adriel Booker25 October 2017 at 5:02 pm
Ah, thanks for that! Good eye! 🙂
Kate18 June 2016 at 1:11 pm
I’m struggling with the asking permission part of this. Your example of hair brushing is perfect and relatable for us. My almost four year old daughter has more days than not, that if left up to her, hair goes unbrushed. I promise to be gentle, quick, keep it simple, offer a fancy braid, a special treat, it doesn’t matter and she outright refuses. The days I’ve let her get away with this, the tangles are twice as bad the next, and that much more painful to brush out. I obviously want her to understand consent, and have boundaries to keep others from hurting her, but as her mama I have to take care of her too, and usually she doesn’t agree with me. It’s not just hair either. She won’t go potty enough to the point of giving herself recurrent UTI’s, she’d rather bleed everywhere than wear a band aid, and there are tons of other things that I have to do for her safety, health and wellbeing that are not with her permission. Maybe it’s because she’s still three that we have such struggle, but I worry that me forcing her to sit on the potty when she hasn’t gone in more than six hours is damaging her future power to give consent or not. Any thoughts on how the discipline plays into permission? We do all of the other things you highlight, so maybe I need to wait and this last one will come with age and maturity.
Adriel Booker20 June 2016 at 10:40 am
Hi Kate. Thanks for your comments/questions. Parenting a threenager is not for the faint of heart! One of my boys was a fairly “easy” three-year-old, the other was (and is still ) more willful. It helps me to remember that this type of personality makes for a wonderfully strong and resilient human who will be able to stand up for what is right with courage and conviction one day. But for now? It’s hard. 🙂 I’m not a parenting expert (just a normal mom like you), but here are a few thoughts for you:
1. I wouldn’t be offering any treats or other “bribes” for necessary things like hair brushing. I know a lot of parents disagree with me on this, but I personally don’t think it sets a good precedent for behavior we expect as part of every day life. In saying that, we did use incentive charts for both our boys during the first couple of days of potty training (i.e. for each time in the potty you get a sticker, then when the row is filled up you get a gummy worm or something like that). Other than a brief period (like 2-3 days, tops) at the beginning of potty training, I don’t think rewards or treats are helpful to coerce children into do what is expected. Not saying you should never give treats, but maybe do it as a way to celebrate an accomplishment rather than reward it. (“You kept your undies dry all night! Let’s choose a treat together to celebrate!”)
2. Have you asked your doctor about how you might help her with the potty frequency? Must be so hard to watch her get infections like that. So sorry. 🙁 I’ve heard this is a fairly common problem for little ones (or refusing to poop and getting constipated) but I have no personal experience dealing with that so would hesitate to comment much. A few things come to mind though: Does she have a birthday or other milestone coming up? One of the things that worked for us is setting a date and talking about it during the lead up. I wanted my second son to learn how to wipe his own bum but he didn’t want to—always refused. Then one day (around 4.5yo) I just started saying “next Monday you’ll need to wipe your own bottom” and kept bringing it up and chatting about it and asking him if he understood and was excited to become a bigger boy that day. By the time Monday came there was no resistance and he easily learned. I’m not sure how to translate that strategy over to your daughter but I wonder if there’s a way to give her some lead up and then help her to see the behavior modification is an achievement of becoming a big girl? My other thought is to maybe find a fun/funny potty song on iTunes (Elmo or something) and set a day (give her a week in advance) where you tell her that whenever the funny song starts to play you’re all going to try the potty (yourself included) and it will be a race to see who gets to try first when their hear the song start. See if a playful game can help get her motivated and then set it to go off every hour or two for a few days. I wouldn’t leave here there until she does something—maybe just a minute or so (you don’t want her to dread the wasted play time!). Just brainstorming out loud here—maybe it will trigger some ideas for you?. 🙂
3. When I talk about permission-asking, I’m talking about setting a precedence for respect and trust. I don’t think we can be led by our children and wait for permission on everything, especially when it’s safety related. I would be giving her lots of other areas where she can exercise choice, but don’t compromise on safety/hygiene stuff. I’d say something like this (and have many times with one of our kids!): “You have to brush your teeth, but you can do it before or after you get dressed. What’s your choice?” Then if there is protest, I will continue: “If you decide you aren’t yet big enough to do it yourself, I’ll have to do it for you but the choice is yours. Either way, your teeth must get brushed and I will not let you play until you take care of your teeth.” Then you need to follow through, not give a million second chances.
4. One more thing that might help. We made a morning routine chart on our fridge so the kids would understand what’s expected of them each day. (They moved a star magnet onto each item once it was done.) There were no rewards or incentives attached to accomplishing the tasks, only the understanding that they wouldn’t be able to get on with the work of play until their routines were done. For us these were for both morning (make bed, get dressed, brush hair, eat breakfast, brush teeth) and night (clean up toys, eat dinner, have a bath, brush teeth, put on jammies, read stories). We don’t frame these as chores, they are routines—both the fun stuff included (read stories) and the other stuff (make bed). We used to let the kids eat breakfast first and then do bed making and getting dressed and hair brushing, but had constant battles with one of the kids until we adjusted our order a little and said bed, clothes, and hair before breakfast. That helped us a lot. Again though—breakfast is not a reward, but it IS incentive to get the other, less exciting things done. 🙂 You’ll have to experiment with your own daughter to see what helps her.
Lastly, Kate, you’re doing so much so well! Don’t beat yourself up—it sounds like you’re getting so many things right and your daughter is just a spirited young lady, which will be such a good thing for her in the future. She’s learning that she is powerful and that is a really good thing! She is also learning that you are there to help her learn she is powerful and that part of that learning to trust that you have her safety and well being in mind. Parenting is no joke and our children are all so different! I hope some of these ideas will be helpful for you.
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Pearl18 August 2016 at 2:02 pm
Here’s my take on the hairbrushing thing. Some kids are sensitive to some kinds of sensory input. When I was a kid I couldn’t stand seams in socks, tags in clothes, or brushing my hair. They just HURT. What would have been minor annoyances at best to most people drove me up a wall (for the record I still cut all the tags out of my clothes and buy seamless socks) and after years of struggling, in first grade my mom told me. You have to brush your hair, if you don’t want to brush your hair you need to get it cut short enough that it won’t tangle. And I said ok. So in time for picture day in 1st grade I got a chin-length bob and I was ecstatic. I loved that I only ever needed to comb my hair and that my hair was easy to wash. If your daughter loves having her hair long enough for fancy things like braids then offering a haircut might make her realize that her hair is worth enduring brushing it. But if it never even occurred to her that she could have short hair or she didn’t have the words to articulate the fact that she doesn’t like her hair she may really enjoy having a shorter haircut like I did. (I did eventually grow my hair back out, but now that I’m in my 20s I only have one friend with shorter hair than me and that’s because he has a buzz cut :3)
Arielle24 October 2017 at 8:22 pm
Ooh I agree with this one! My parents said the same thing to me, and I was one of the girls with long hair that wanted to keep it. I did end up cutting it short twice, in 4th grade and high school but missed it so much, and while I have very long hair past my waist now. I have keratin so I still don’t have to brush it! Knowing that cutting it short was a real choice definitely helped me value my long hair.
I would also make sure that she knows hairbrushing will happen twice every day, and try to give her choices around everything related to it- about what room and what else she’s doing, what hairbrush you’re using (she may prefer a boars head bristle rather than a child’s brush) . Maybe she can read a book or watch a favorite show while you’re brushing so this can become a fun and relaxing part of her routine. . Giving her a braid at the end sometimes or another nice hairstyle might make her enjoy having hair too. Approach it calmly, use tons of conditioner, go slowly and brush from the bottom up while holding the roots gently with the other hand so it doesn’t pull. The real challenge is if she’s squirming and it starts pulling, than you become upset and so does she, and it suddenly becomes associated as a painful, scary, negative experience. Allowing more time for yourself to reregulate should help.
Heather20 August 2016 at 3:53 am
I’m a nanny and ECE. One thing that might help with the potty time is attaching it to other parts of your routine. Have certain times in the day when she has to sit on the potty. For instance I always do, wake up, before nap, after nap, and before night time bath or bed time. Also before going out of the house. Get her to choose if she sits and counts to 10 or counts to 15 (or she could choose a book to look at on the potty or play a tablet game etc.). She can’t move on in the routine until potty time is done. If I get an argument I just repeat that we always sit on the potty before nap, and add in a choice (what number do you want to count to, would you like your toy to sit in the bathroom too, what book would you like, ) It’s ok if she doesn’t go but usually if a child is sitting on the potty they end up peeing before they get to 10. Especially if a sneeky grown up just happens to be washing their hands in the adjacent sink. you could also increase the liquids she consumes. I like watered down juice as a not too sugary drink option that is more exciting than just water. Try cranberry juice to reduce the chance of UTI’s as well. Blending it up in a berry smoothy might help the taste.
Hair brushing can be treated as a necessary part of the routine same as brushing teeth. Just another way we take care of our bodies. Maybe she would prefer to have short hair if she doesn’t want to brush. If she chooses to have long hair then brushing it everyday is part of the deal. I set up a hair dresser shop (small chair in front of a big chair, and lots of elastics and clips to choose from) If we have lots of time we even take turns being the hair dresser. I remind kids to tell me if I’m pulling and I will be more gentle. Start from the bottom of the hair, take out the lower tangles and work your way up, hold onto to the chunk of hair you are brushing so it’s mostly pulling on your hand rather than her scalp. I also remind kids why we brush hair: tangles get dirty and smelly, you didn’t like how ouchy the tangles were last time we skipped a day, if we go out to play without a ponytail your hair gets in your face, it’s windy today and that wind will blow your hair around, you didn’t like that last time. Whatever it is.
Manon Larose15 December 2017 at 12:59 am
Hello Kate. I understand your dilemma: being stuck between good parenting and good parenting (ensuring proper hygiene and not wanting to impose pain on your child). But this is a case of hypersensitivity. As a Homœopath, even in your short description, I see that she is too sensitive to certain stimuli and this sensitivity is causing complications, both for you (struggling with what is the right thing to do for your child) and for her with infections. I think your reasoning is excellent and your dilemma real. This can be treated homœopathically, her hypersensitivity can be brought back to normal and life would certainly be improved for both of you.
Jody Collins23 June 2016 at 12:14 pm
So much needed, so well done, Adriel. Thank you. (Forwarding to my DIL (mother of four boys, 1 girl. Aaron’s wife 🙂
Kris24 June 2016 at 4:53 am
Goodness! It’s exhausting to realise just how much I’m getting wrong 😛 My partner and I both grew up in families with little body privacy, personal agency, or consent, and so although I am intellectually aware of the issues I frequently realise that I’ve taken over agency of the little ones (fortunately they’re feisty enough to stick up for themselves at least some of the time!) And my partner doesn’t think it’s important, so that’s exhausting too. Keep a candle lit for us who are coming up behind 🙁
Adriel Booker27 June 2016 at 11:37 am
Kris, I’d venture to say you’re probably doing a better job than you realize. That you care and are actively looking for ways to grow as a parent demonstrates that. We’re all learning together.
Kris29 June 2016 at 5:42 am
Thank you Adriel. I hope so!
Jocelyn Rodriguez25 June 2016 at 7:42 am
I agree with only a small amount of this article. I have raised 3 happy, healthy children. I come from a large family. One of my children is autistic. I do agree that are some obvious boundaries that should be set about personal space between and what is appropriate and respectful between genders and siblings and really everyone but this article is WAY off base on other areas.
It is not OK to disrespect your grandparents who you only have around for a few short precious years. It is NOT ok to disrespect your sibling by withholding a hug back because you are in a MOOD. (Which DOES happen). We are the PARENTS. Not friends. We tell our children when to brush their hair, because it needs to be brushed everyday and we know what is best for them. Period. Children don’t know what is best for themselves because they are children. We are adults and are responsible for making those decisions for them until they can make them for themselves. To suggest otherwise is utter foolishness.
Adriel Booker27 June 2016 at 11:35 am
I would never endorse children disrespecting their grandparents (or anyone for that matter). I do, however, feel there are other ways to show respect without forcing demonstrations of affection that children are uncomfortable with. I’ve detailed a few of those ways in the article.
Alexis17 August 2016 at 12:11 am
Hi Adrian, I fully agree with your comment here. I have studied child development and this step with families is not related to disrespect, but to boundaries, you’re spot on. Just because someone is family does not mean they have a right to your body, a grandparent ideally is understanding and proud that the child can set their own boundaries. Also, if the child is truly comfortable, they would not mind hugging a grandparent most of the time.
Thank you for the article.
Adriel Booker11 October 2016 at 2:17 pm
Yeah, I think that’s important to note—when a child feels safe they usually have no problem hugging family members.
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Nicholas16 October 2016 at 12:13 pm
Hi Alexis, I, too, agree with this. I have just recently become a father (2 months ago) and was glad to have found this website as it provides such beautiful information and ideas (thank you, Adriel!).
I remember as a young child (and also particularly with my younger sisters) the difficulties in placing one’s own desire to refrain from displaying physical affection at particular times, even with ‘safe’ people, such as a grandmother. My family are all very private and reserved people, especially with personal space and physical boundaries, although my parents’ families don’t appear to be the same. My mother would often struggle to explain to our grandparents or aunts or uncles (and even older cousins) a bit about why we have the boundaries we have (which is simply personal preference) but they rarely seemed to understand. In particular, I recall having issues with photographs being taken of me (non-sexual, simply just ‘family photos’). I would often say ‘no’ to having my photo taken, and as a result I often had people trying to get in a ‘sneaky shot’ when I wasn’t paying attention. What I didn’t realise as a young child was that I had strong gender dysphoria (I am a trans male), and seeing photos of myself was quite traumatic. These ‘sneaky shots’ made this worse, and as a result I retreated even further into my shell. Now, with more comfort around who I am and my physical appearance, I don’t mind photos so much. However, I still find that a ‘sneaky shot’ (which some people are still used to having to do with me) triggers my trauma and distresses me greatly, whereas if I were simply asked to be in the photo I would most likely have said ‘yes’. Recently at breakfast with family, my grandmother took one of these ‘sneaky shots’ of me and my little sisters happened to realise it. As a result, they were disgusted by this lack of respect and subsequently refused to pose for photos of themselves later on. A few weeks later I had coffee with my grandmother, just the two of us, and she commented on how she didn’t understand what my sisters had against having their photos taken. I told her it was because she hadn’t asked me permission to take my photo and that they found this disrespectful, and she scoffed and tried to argue ‘she just wanted pictures of her grandchildren’.
Knowing how it feels to be on that side of the argument, I most certainly don’t want to subject my son to the same things. Whilst he is still unable to communicate consent, I am happy to let people pick him up, cuddle him and take photos, but once he is old enough to make his own decisions (which is as soon as he can understand the choices he has), it won’t be up to me anymore. Hopefully my partner will also be able to understand what I do and why I do it, and will also help to reinforce respect for one another within the family (and outside of the family, too).
I do not believe that children are too young to know what is best for themselves. And certainly refusing a hug (or declining permission to have a photo taken) is not a sign of disrespect, even from a grandparent. After all, my mother was sexually assaulted by her grandfather – so where’s the line to be drawn? Families are not always safe, so children should not be expected to always show physical affection (hugs/kisses) with them; it would completely undermine the prioritisation of consent above all else.
Karin20 August 2016 at 5:43 am
You don’t teach a child respect for bodily autonomy by blatantly disrespecting their right to it. Not forcing a child to show physical affection is not the same as allowing them to disrespect someone. Not forcing a child to hug their sibling isn’t the same as allowing them to disrespect their sibling. It’s being respectful of that child’s comforts. If you ever expect your child to respect the comfort of others, you must start by teaching them that their own comforts are acknowledged and respected.
Carolina20 September 2016 at 5:38 am
I fully support not forcing hugs, even to grandparents. As someone who was molested by her grandfather, I think this form of setting boundaries is imperative. Teaching kids to be in to empowered over their bodies will help them as they get older.
Adriel Booker11 October 2016 at 12:09 pm
I’m so sorry that you’ve gone through what you have Carolina. Thank you for sharing your experience.
Teresa B.6 July 2016 at 4:47 am
Thanks so much for this Adriel. I have a 16 month old who is just learning how to give affection (I love all the kissies!) but also teaching him to respect boundaries is so so important and while it may not come up for us now, it definitely will in the near future. This is a topic that I feel is not touched on enough in the discussions with our kids however it is one of the most important ones. 🙂 Thanks for giving me ideas of how to bring it up to my son. (as a first time mom, i’m a little nervous about this whole parenting thing!)
Adriel Booker11 October 2016 at 2:18 pm
Glad you found this helpful Teresa. I think if we start with some of this in mind, then later it isn’t a big shift to start talking about consent on more serious levels.
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Chupacabra23 July 2016 at 5:18 am
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.”
Sarah25 July 2016 at 4:29 am
Lovely! As a teacher, these were things that were hard to try and teach to middle schoolers. With my own children, we’re starting all of these things very young despite some upset grandparents (when they don’t get hugs /kisses, when my 3 yo son closed the bathroom door on his grandfather because he wanted privacy). All of these things are so important, and it’s helpful to read this and be affirmed that I’m on the right track. God bless us as we raise these kids the best way we know how!
Adriel Booker11 October 2016 at 2:20 pm
I really feel for teachers who are trying to teach/reinforce concepts that late in the game (middle school and high school) if they’ve never first been taught and demonstrated at home. Thank you for your service to kids! You have such a difficult task!
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Inez16 August 2016 at 3:38 am
When my children were growing up I made a point of separating my duties from their need for independence. So I’d say, you may chose colour and style, but mum is responsible for health, so we need to choose something right for the weather. My parents didn’t understand when I told them that they could decide long or short hair, what cut, but hair colour would wait until much older, because of the chemicals. They could help cook, snapping beans or mixing and later cooking, but what they put on their plate they ate. If the texture wasn’t right, often they preferred a raw veg to the cooked (snap and crunch). From when they were little, they always had 15 minutes to read in bed, and I’d come turn out the light…often they were asleep, but they loved the times I ‘forgot’ and they got an extra 5 minutes. I also had no problem with night fears, but I’m not sure if that was because of the books or not.
For the woman who worried about ‘respect’ for grands and such,1/ I am glad I didn’t push mine to kisses, but disrespect was punished. I was once so angry that I told them they confused real life with a sitcom, where they could talk ‘smartass’ to me. So they had no books in their rooms, bookcases removed, and I told them to go watch the TV, since they had TV mouths to me. By day 2 they were massively bored and longing for their books. We negotiated from the week I’d been thinking of (and mentioned) to 4 days. So, I’ve been okay, I think.. not entirely mindful, but I look at 2 really good adults and I am happy.
fer19 August 2016 at 5:07 pm
Feminism is the best thing that could ever happen to human race , Not hugging my children when they are grumpy or having a tantrum, you just save the humanity from the rape crisis that doesn’t exit.
sarah20 August 2016 at 12:09 am
Thank you for this
Jen Brookens27 August 2016 at 3:14 am
Hi, I am in line with and practice all of these things. Odd question, however, my 15 month old is always naked and has started to become curious about her vagina. I noticed her beginning to pull up my shirt (not to nurse, we haven’t in 3 months and she was plainly over it when we stopped) and also attempting to pull down my pants inquisitively. I was at first not bothered at all by it, thinking she was just curious what was under my clothes, but now I wonder if I am modeling something I don’t want to be by letting her invade those areas, even if she is harmless by it. Any good idea to address this? She has started doing it to her sister and I saw her trying to lift a dress of a little girl at daycare.
Adriel Booker11 October 2016 at 2:27 pm
Personally I would tell her she can’t pull up your shirt (or pull down your pants) and tell her that “only mommy can take off mommy’s clothes.” But then I’d give her other opportunities to see you—in the shower, getting dressed/undressed, going to the bathroom. She is naturally curious and that’s fine. You want her to feel safe to learn from you! But that doesn’t mean it gets to be on her terms. (You model that it’s on your terms.) And even though she’s young and innocent, I wouldn’t be letting her do that to other children or siblings. When you see her doing that say, “No. You cannot touch/lift _____’s dress. You need to give her privacy.” Once you start to use the word ‘privacy’ she’ll be quick to pick it up in understanding (even if she ca’t yet say it). Hope that helps!
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Amelie28 August 2016 at 10:24 pm
Thank you for this article. I realised we have been raising our children in quite a similar way but a few things I read about are great new additions to what we have been doing, so thank you for all the further tips! I especially like your rule of privacy, surprises, and secrets.
Adriel Booker11 October 2016 at 2:28 pm
Glad you found the post helpful, Amelie.
Adriel Booker recently posted..When you feel like you don’t belong
Rose S29 August 2016 at 12:14 am
I absolutely love this article! I have just started doing these things with my 3 year old daughter. Without even realizing all these extra reasons they are important. She is having a hard time with playing nice and minding her own space at daycare, especially with those younger than her. So teaching her if they are backing up, putting hands up, or any non verbal form of communication is important for her to stop. Which is so hard with a 3 year old. But she loves to have choices also! Anyways this was really great, and I am going to start incorporating this in our everyday life! Thanks 🙂
Adriel Booker11 October 2016 at 2:29 pm
Glad to help. Sounds like you’re on the right track already Rose. Three-year-olds have lots of energy and ideas. It takes grace to parent them well. 😉
Adriel Booker recently posted..Finding a new normal: transition, chaos, and intentional living
Cate McDonald5 September 2016 at 8:13 pm
Wow. I have learned so much reading this! Empowering my daughter to own her body and be confident in her no’s is REALLY important to me, and I struggle with people wanting to hug her because she is small and cute against her will. I will allow her to set more definite boundaries from now on and support her in them! I grew up in a household (and era) where if an adult told you to do something you did it without question, especially in their home. It lead to me being abused by a neighbour for 2 years in my early teens. My daughter is super independent and a great negotiator but I realise some of the language I use in our negotiations could definitely be changed. thank you so much!
Adriel Booker11 October 2016 at 2:32 pm
Glad to be of help, Cate. I’m so sorry for your experience as a young teen. It’s that exact form of parenting and attitudes (obey adults without question) that has gotten countless children into vulnerable positions. So sad. I’m glad you have the tools to help your daughter learn the boundaries that you had to learn later in life.
Adriel Booker recently posted..Sinking deep (and thoughts on pregnancy after miscarriage)
Grant16 September 2016 at 12:57 am
I wish you good luck on developing your products. I mean, raising your children.
Adriel Booker11 October 2016 at 10:14 am
Leslie2 December 2016 at 10:32 am
Wow- outstanding article. I just commented on another post, saying it was the first of yours that I read after just discovering your blog today. This is really great, and I’m excited to share this with my husband. Thanks for doing what you’re doing!
Adriel Booker2 January 2017 at 3:49 pm
You’re welcome Leslie. Thanks for reading along. Glad this was helpful. 🙂
Herma Hudek22 October 2017 at 12:49 pm
Thank you so much. That is a great idea to allow the kids to say goodnight or blow a kiss instead of making them hug and kiss. They shouldn’t be made to do that…I love the privacy part instead of secrets. I have read where predators will say lets keep this our secret because parents might get mad..They may start to groom them by buying them snacks just before dinner or going to eat when they aren’t supposed to. It sounds innocent but groomers know how to become their so-called friend…..Learn what groomers do to groom parents and kids.
Manon Larose15 December 2017 at 1:01 am
Thoughtful and well-balanced article. There is no parenting manual, but if there were, this article should be included!
Only the Prepared Will Succeed at Safeguarding Children On Mobile Phones - Warren Luke3 October 2019 at 8:43 pm
[…] agency, and consent begins while they’re in diapers – Adriel Booker [Online]. Available at http://adrielbooker.com/teaching-kids-body-privacy-personal-agency-consent/ (Accessed 15 September […]