Let’s talk about consent. Personally, as a parent and a therapist, I love talking about consent! I am passionate about consent and the opportunity to provide education on the topic. Why am I so passionate about consent? Because consent empowers us to take charge of our bodies, our actions, our relationships, and our lives. Consent helps us to set and defend our personal boundaries while also allowing us to engage in mutually respectful and agreed upon activities.

We engage in using consent so often in our everyday lives it can become an automatic thing we do without actively thinking about what we are actually doing. That is what makes consent such an important and easy topic to teach and model for our children. Consent is something we use in our day-to-day lives and using this lived experience is where we can draw inspiration from to begin to talk to our children about consent in their lives.

What is Consent?

Consent is the act of giving permission for something to happen or agreeing to do something. Simple enough, right? Yet, consent becomes more complex as we age and engage in various activities such as when in a relationship or when having sex. However, consent is giving willing permission for something to occur. Knowing what consent is in its simplest form can guide parents in getting started teaching their children about the topic.

Consent typically involves one person asking another to engage in something, such as giving a hug or playing a game. Consent can involve bigger situations and activities such as consenting for medical treatment or consenting in legal agreements.

However, for children consenting often involves activities and actions such as hugs, kisses, sharing personal space, sharing items, playing with others, etc. Other factors that go into consent as a child are concepts like bodily autonomy, personal boundaries, physical touch, respect, social-emotional skills, body language, and verbal communication. All of these concepts are things that children learn and understand as they grow and engage with their peers, adults, and family. Some skills are learned through natural instinct and interaction with others, some need to be taught to children and refined over time. There are quite a few great books that teach about consent and can help parents to discuss and learn about the topic. One of my personal favorites is Let’s Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent, and Respect by Jayneen Sanders.

Consent isn’t Just About Sex, but Sex Should Always Involve Consent

Many parents visibly recoil when encouraged to talk to their children about consent. Often times this reaction comes from a place of thinking their children are too young to learn about topics that connect to sex. I can assure you that these thoughts are totally normal and I’ve had them myself as a parent. However, when we break-down consent to its basics, it actually doesn’t have to include any connections to sex in the beginning.

Consent isn’t just about sex! Consent is about giving permission or not giving permission. Consent can be about saying yes or no to sharing a toy or playing a game. Consent can look like a grandparent asking before kissing a grandchild. Consent can involve concepts like building bodily autonomy which can look like a child getting to bathe themselves when they verbalize they are ready and a parent has ensured the child has learned the necessary skills. Respect is an important aspect of consent because asking someone for permission before doing something to them is showing respect for that person and that person’s comfort.

Social-emotional skills get involved with consent because children learn empathy as well as build emotional intelligence through engaging in consent. Practicing consent can help children learn, practice, and refine their social skills to all settings and with a variety of people. An example of this would be a child learning that it’s ok to hug a parent and sit in the parent’s lap, but another child may not want to be hugged or sat on. A child can learn to read another person’s emotions and non-verbal cues through practicing consent, such as seeing that someone is feeling nervous and backing away from them when asked for a hug.

Sex and Consent

Sex should always involve consent and so when the time feels right to begin talking to your kids about sex, that is also the time to have a conversation about how consent applies to sexual interactions. The National Sexuality Education Standards recommends teaching kids about sex and consent at least by the end of the 8th grade (when children around 13-14 years old). That being said, one of the best ways to tell if your child needs to learn about sexual consent is to have on-going conversations with them about topics related to peers, body boundaries, body functioning, peer pressure, social media interactions, and so on. The goal should be to consider the child’s maturity level and interest in various topics as to gauge if they show interest in topics like sex. Interest doesn’t mean they are engaging in sexual activity, it just means they are curious in learning more, which is normal.

On-going check-ins and conversations with your child will also help you to feel more comfortable with these topics and will show your child that you are a safe person to come to for more information and support. When you and your child are ready to talk about sex and consent, start out by asking what things they are curious about, what they have heard from peers and others, and what they have seen on TV that may be relevant to sex and consent. This type of conversation allows children to take the lead and tell you what they are comfortable with discussing and what they are curious about. You can then clarify any false information they may have learned from media or peers, and you can provide more accurate information such as talking about the age of consent and legal considerations, how to give or refuse consent, and how to seek help if consent has been violated You can even discuss more nuanced topics related to sex and consent such as how not saying “no” doesn’t mean “yes”, how consent can be revoked and giving consent once doesn’t cover future activities, and how consent should be mutually and enthusiastically given.

When and How to Teach Your Children About Consent

When you should teach your children about consent is, of course, up to your discretion. As you have already read in this blog, discussions of consent and teaching of consent can start when your child is a toddler. This is the age when you can begin teaching your child about body boundaries, names for body parts, and how to ask and give permission for activities like hugging or playing games with others. You can also teach your child about social-emotional skills like empathy so that they can better understand the perspectives of others.

As your child ages and picks-up on the basics of consent, you can begin teaching them about things like good-touch versus bad-touch and how to seek support if anyone touches them in a bad-touch way or place. You can model and practice skills with them by demonstrating body boundaries, asking them before giving a hug, offering them the choice to dress themselves when they are able, giving them more privacy as they age, and demonstrating consent skills with other friends and family so they can see how these skills are used with different people.

An important part of teaching consent is helping your child defend and advocate for their boundaries. If your child tells a cousin that they don’t want a hug but the cousin hugs them anyway, help your child by asking if they need you to speak up for them or if they need suggestions of what to say so they can speak up for themselves. As your child grows and matures, they will experience situations that will require more in depth discussions of consent and sex. They will go through puberty, see dating and relationships acted out on TV, and will hear things from their peers and others. Take things one step at a time and use as many relevant resources as you can to help support yourself and your child through this process. Some great resources for talking about consent and sex are Scarleteen.com, amaze.org, and sexpositivefamilies.com.

Final Thoughts on Consent

Teaching your children about consent can seem challenging and even inappropriate at first glance, but in reality consent is a concept that can be taught to children of any age. Consent doesn’t have to involve a discussion of sex because consent applies to a wide variety of activities and interactions where permission is discussed Consent should always be included when discussing sex and bodily autonomy with children so that they understand that their body belongs to them and others do not have a right to their body without permission. As a parent you also need support and that can look like educational tools and resources, friends and family, doctors, or spiritual leaders. These resources can help you to get the best information for you and your family and prepare you for teaching your child about consent.