In the wake of the #metoo movement, many parents, teachers, and caregivers want to know what we should be teaching young people. How old do they need to be to understand? Teaching consent and boundaries to children is simpler than we think, and it should begin as young as possible.
At a very early age, we begin pointing and teaching children the names of their body parts, ears, eyes, nose, etc. Teaching children the anatomically correct names of their private parts is essential. The penis and vagina are just as important to know as hands and toes (maybe more so!). These body parts should not be secret or shameful. Children need to be given the vocabulary needed to understand and advocate for their own bodies.
It is important for children to understand at a young age that their body belongs to them. Children should be able to make decisions about who they touch and who touches them. If a child is not comfortable giving hugs, do not force them. Physical affection should be given freely and never forced. Children need to understand that physical affection is about what they are comfortable with not pleasing other people.
Teaching consent to children doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply, consent is about asking and giving permission. Ever watch a child take a toy from another after being told no? Or continue to beg to do something after being told no? Learning to ask and get consent can be practiced in everyday situations and should start early on. As much as children need to learn to advocate for themselves and say no, they also must learn to respectfully accept a no. Teaching people to ask and then respect the yes or no is an imperative life skill, and the earlier it is taught the better.
Teaching children to respect others’ boundaries comes down to practice and reinforcement. The same way a child must learn that they control their own bodies, they also must learn to respect other people’s space and boundaries. This can be practiced by teaching children to ask, listen, and accept the answers of others.
Teach children to be aware of the feelings of others. Explain to the child if they have done something to hurt someone else. For example, “when you hit your friend it hurt and made them feel sad. We don’t want to hurt someone and make them sad.” Encourage them to imagine what it would feel like if it were them. Be kind when talking to children, never embarrass, or shame them – they are learning. Teach children about noticing other children who are hurting, as well as identifying and alerting trusted adults so appropriate help can be provided. Some adults will take advantage of a well-meaning child. Remind children that adults may need help from other adults but rarely from children. For example a man approached my son at a park and asked him to help him find his kid. My son knew an adult asking a child for help was not appropriate and told him no. The man left the park with no children. Bad situations can be prevented when our children are prepared. Watch this video on understanding empathy.
Talk to the children in your life about gut feelings. Let them know that sometimes we might get a strange feeling when our instincts tell us something is not right. Teach them to listen to their instincts and that those feelings are there to keep us safe.
Practice around consent and boundaries should be ongoing throughout a child’s life. Conversations around consent and sexual behaviors should progress as the child enters middle school and high school. Discuss informed enthusiastic consent with your teens. Remember the mantra for consent is not “no means no” but “yes means yes.” Media and movies can be great conversation starters, especially to bust myths about the hard-to-get girl, the role of alcohol and sex, and bystander roles.
Start these practices early, these simple concepts will carry over and prepare young people for more serious conversations and situations into their teens and adulthood. Children and teens will be bombarded with messages about societal norms, gender expectations, and sex throughout their lives starting at birth. Be the trusted and responsible adult in their life that prepares them for healthy relationships.