This can be a tricky topic because our adult minds often associate consent directly with sexual expression. But for children it’s about so much more. Teaching children to understand consent from an early age allows them to develop language skills, boundaries, self-confidence, respect, empathy, autonomy, AND it significantly reduces the risks of potential abuse.
You can introduce the idea of consent by role playing with your child. Ask them if they want a hug. If they say yes, then give them a hug. If they say no, say, “Ok, you make the rules about your body so I will not hug you.”
You can introduce this idea with family and friends as well. It’s really important never to force children into physical interactions, or allow others to do so. For example, when Granny comes to visit, say out loud, “We are learning about consent this week. Would you like to give Granny a hug? No? That’s ok, what about a high five instead? Also not? Ok, we can just use words to greet today. Hi Granny!”
Unfortunately, statistics show that perpetrators of abuse are rarely strangers, but rather within the family circle. Teach your child that if they ever feel uncomfortable about being touched, or are asked to do something that feels wrong to them, it’s important that they tell an adult whom they trust. If that adult won’t listen or doesn’t believe them, they should keep telling more adults until someone listens.
Even if your child is particularly self-assured and independent, all children can struggle when faced with a novel situation. Role play is a really effective way to teach children how to behave when they may feel otherwise feel uncomfortable and helpless. Role play gives them an opportunity to practice words and actions in a safe space, which prepares and empowers them for the future. It also speaks to them on a developmentally appropriate level, since children naturally love to immerse themselves in imaginative scenarios.
Think of as many scenarios that you can think of in which consent would be important. For example:
Write each on a slip of paper and then ask your child to pick one at a time. You can take turns at playing each role in the relationship. Carefully note when your child feels uncomfortable and if need be, provide them with a script. “No, Uncle, stop! Stop tickling me!” Allow them to practice this script and encourage the use of loud voices and that stop means stop, no questions asked. “My angel, Suzie said that she doesn’t want a hug right now, so you cannot hug her. Suzie’s body; Suzie’s rules.”
This may seem like overkill, and some friends and family may even be offended in the process. But your child’s safety is more important than appeasing others.