Talking about consent with young children can feel overwhelming while looking into the eyes of our little ones.
In the world we live in now, being bombarded with messages and information about our bodies and sexuality (read more about this here in a recent post), it can feel almost impossible to stay on top of doing enough to protect our children from insecurities, pressures and dangers. My goal came from wanting to create a wealth of knowledge, vast and varied about consent and sexuality as well as a space to allow conversations to occur through trust and safety. This need not be the heavy and uncomfortable conversations you think about when remembering “birds and bees” talks you may have had with a parent or in sex. ed. class – you know the one paired with red cheeks and emotionally pitched voices. My daughter is two years old so I keep this conversation light and easy. It’s my belief and hope that laying the ground work for this communication will make the discussion familiar and less intimidating (for both of us) as she gets older.
The importance of this became clear to me yesterday, during a trip to the grocery store – a regular and favourite activity for my daughter. She engaged in her typical friendly behaviour of saying hello to everyone who caught her eye. I do really enjoy watching the joy she gets out of making people smile as well as the lasting effect of the smile upon the fellow shopper as we continue to see them throughout the store. Having such an outgoing child has been a blessing in so many ways and is so fun to watch, but comes with the worry of how this may change when she isn’t so little and has less concern about holding my hand – how could it not, when I grew up with the “stranger danger” mentality.
So, I started the lessons early
I started talking about bodies, teaching her the names for body parts and letting her speak with comfort about them as well as empowering her with the knowledge that her body is her own. It is one that holds her heart which beams with love, her stomach that feels full or empty around mealtimes, her brain which stores memories, ideas, thoughts and all the funny stories she loves to share. We talk about arms for hugging, legs for dancing and walking, male and female genital areas and their jobs, about people who have different shapes and sizes and how all bodies are good bodies. Through all of this we also talk about how it is her choice if she wants to be hugged or kissed, even by those people she knows well, such as her father and I. Although I will admit it is heartbreaking when she isn’t interested in a hug from her Momma.
She will easily use consent phrases in moments where she decides she doesn’t want to be hugged or kissed by extended family, during physical play with a friend that she has not invited, or in the tub when she practices this language the most. All of this has been wonderful practice for the moment she had to use it and didn’t question her ability to do so.
“No thank you! My body!”
While we were at this grocery store, I was paying for my purchase with her sitting in the cart at the end of the aisle within reach. As a woman approached, F said hello as she often does which I suppose allowed this person to feel welcomed to first comment on my daughter’s appearance and then proceed to tickle her. We did not know this woman and although I would have been taught to be polite and laugh this off, my stomach flipped with discomfort and before time allowed response, my daughter spoke for herself with ease. “No thank you! My body!” The woman quickly shot me a glance, perhaps shocked and surely embarrassed and maybe looking for me to make an apology on my young daughter’s behalf as kid’s do indeed say the darndest things. I smiled at her (proud of myself for not feeling the need to apologize, and more proud of my daughter for using her own language to share her thoughts on the matter) and said nothing. Upon reflection, I could have expressed that my child had been taught to speak up about her own consent, and I have gone back and forth on this. My little lady wasn’t rude. She was direct, yes. But she certainly wasn’t rude about it. Her words were clear and easily understood (as I was able to see by the facial response of this stranger) but I sit here now, happy that my daughter spoke up for herself and that I reiterated the message to her by telling her I was proud. I didn’t want her to feel that I had any other feelings about it, because I didn’t. I’m glad I didn’t feel obligated to have the woman understand what happened from my perspective, because the goal was to have my daughter know she spoke clearly enough for herself.
Teaching her consent and ownership of her own body is of course my first priority. Her body is her own and her choice. My daughter is incredibly loving and although it’s so cute to see her want to hug new friends she meets, I have also begun to teach her about other people’s consent.
Where we have started:
- With a two year old I hear “NO” a lot in the run of a day. It can be incredibly frustrating, especially when I know it’s more of a test of her freedom rather than how she really feels. But I have come to see this as an expression rather than a behaviour and have encouraged my daughter to hear NO from others as well. This means that whatever is going on should STOP; to understand and respect the power of NO and how to use and hear it.
- I really believe strongly that children should not be forced to accept a hug from someone if they don’t feel comfortable to do so. In the age of “NO” I hear this about most things but I’m not going to question it when it comes to contact with another body. That being said, I am also encouraging my daughter to ask permission before rushing to share a hug or kiss with someone else as they may feel the same way and would rather not. Within this, we have experienced moments where a friend may want a hug (“yes”) and then change their mind (“no!”) and that is their choice and their right, as it is for her too.
- Lady F is incredibly empathic and shows concern for someone crying, coughing, sneezing, or anything she deems out of the ordinary for the situation. She will ask if they are okay or what is happening. This has been helpful in having her understand when she has done something that may have hurt someone else, either physically, “this is MY toy” (paired with a shove) or emotionally,“you not play this right now with me”. Always done in language she can understand, we have talked about how it feels to be hurt and that we don’t want to hurt others if we can help it. This easily moves to how we could help someone that is feeling sad, scared or hurt.
- Although my daughter tends to be outgoing, she also has moments of shying away. Forcing her to come out from behind my leg has never been something I’ve been comfortable doing. Rather, we are learning to name our feelings: frustrated, angry, nervous, afraid, shy and when to use them. Recently, while shopping for a couch, we encountered a friendly salesman who knelt down to F and said hello. She responded with, “I feel shy from you.“ We all have those moments where something feels out of sorts and I want her to feel welcome to voice that. In this instance I talked to her about who the gentleman was and why we were there but she preferred to stay close and not talk to the man. And that’s okay. We also use the knowledge of these words to help identify when someone else may feel this way. Characters in stories or through dramatic play has been a great way to reinforce this and feel safe expressing these feelings.
- As I noted above, we have taught Lady F the names of body parts and generally what they do. She is free to express this anytime, anywhere. She recently told my Grandfather, Grandmother and Uncle what parts they had which I’m certain embarrassed them, but they are just body parts and she shouldn’t be intimidated by the language. Bath time is always a great opportunity for learning words when her whole body is in sight to her. Asking her permission to wash these parts of the body teaches her that I value her body being her own and sets the stage that everyone should be asking first before touching her and that she can indeed say NO. In the moments when she doesn’t want to have a part washed, like when yogurt is caked on her face but she’s not interested in my wiping it off, I will invite her to do it herself and luckily for me she is at an age when independence and responsibly is desirable and seems to be working to get the yogurt off.
These conversations will change and my approach will differ as my daughter grows but for now I feel like we are off to a great start. I would love to hear how you talk to and model consent with your young children or if you have more to add to the list or resources above!
As you’ve probably come to know, I use books to encourage conversation, take quiet time to talk, connect with my daughter and work our way through whatever topic is on the table. This comes naturally to us as books are such a large part of our home culture. Throughout this post you will see two images of books I’ve come to find helpful to start these conversations, which when clicked will lead you to more information on the book and the affiliate link. There are so many books out there that talk about these issues, some heavier than others. Some set for older ages, while others are perfect for the very young. No matter the books you use, I would encourage you to get comfortable with it first so you can be open to whatever questions may (or may not) come from it. Leave it around to be chosen as frequently as any other book. Make it a part of your library.