Talking to kids about consent
or, why it's important for kids to understand their own--and others--body boundaries
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In a previous chapter of my career, I was the Assistant Dean of Students at Washington University in St. Louis. Among several other responsibilities, I was charged with managing communications with respondents—and their families—when they were found responsible for perpetrating sexual misconduct and were suspended or expelled from the University.
I frequently think about one mother I worked with, whose son had been expelled for sexual misconduct. Through tears, she told me that when she sent her daughter to college, she spoke with her at length about buddy systems, rape whistles, and other sexual assault prevention strategies. She never thought to talk to her son about his role in preventing sexual assault. She just assumed he knew better.
The prevention, education, and treatment of sexual misconduct has been a through line in my career. It started over (gulp) 20 years ago when I was a college freshman and volunteered for the campus rape crisis hotline. That work led me to pursue graduate studies in mental health and informed my clinical specialization (trauma). Though this work is no longer my primary focus, it remains a part of my portfolio and I currently serve as a Deputy Title IX Coordinator (handling cases related to sexual misconduct and gender-based discrimination) for Yale School of Medicine.
Consent is a very important topic that needs to be addressed continually—it is not a “one and done” conversation. Kids needs to learn about consent both to protect themselves and to ensure they don’t harm others. Because children are naturally curious about their own (and others) bodies, I’m a firm believer that they are never too young for conversations about boundaries and consent, as long as those conversations are developmentally-appropriate.
Talking about Consent
We often talk about consent in the context of sex, but consent fundamentally means permission. Preschool and elementary school aged children can understand conversations about boundaries and the importance of needing consent to touch another person’s body.
Highlight the importance of body autonomy: “You are the boss of your own body. No one should touch you without your permission. Just like you’re the boss of your body, Sadie is the boss of her body, and you can’t touch her without her permission.”
Teach kids to read body language: “I noticed that Jack was turning away when you tried to hug him. I think he was trying to tell you that you don’t have his consent to hug him right now.”
Encourage healthy boundary setting: “You don’t have to hug or kiss anyone you don’t want to.” (This is a fraught topic in some families. If grandparents/others expect a hug as a greeting but your kid is uncomfortable with this, you may suggest a high five, handshake, or fist bump instead. Forcing your kid to hug or kiss someone when they don’t want to, sends a mixed message. You can read more about this here).
Teach kids the proper names for their body parts: The book Who Has What is a great resource.
Introduce bystander intervention by teaching kids to speak up if they see someone else being treated roughly or unfairly: If a child tells you about a situation that they didn’t know how to handle, talk it through and then ask them to play the “rewind game” and think through how they might have intervened.
Distinguish between “tattling” and “telling”: The purpose of tattling is to get someone else in trouble or avoid blame; the purpose of telling is to keep you or someone else safe. This website gives scenarios that you can review with your child to help illustrate the difference.
Help kids build a safety network: Help your child identify 3-4 trusted adults they can turn to if they’re being hurt. At least one of these people should be outside of your family.
Encourage kids to trust their instincts: Ask your child if they’ve ever had a “gut instinct” that led them to feel weird, frightened, or just plain “yucky”. Emphasize the importance of trusting their “belly voice”—if something doesn’t feel right, encourage them to reach out to an adult in their safety network.
Conversations with middle and high school aged kids can be more detailed and explicit. I have found the FRIES acronym, which is frequently used on college campuses, to be particularly helpful.
To break this down further:
Freely Given: Consent can only be given when neither party is incapacitated, intoxicated, or coerced. Regarding intoxication, a colleague of mine used to tell students “if the other person is too drunk/high to drive your car, they are too drunk/high to have sex with you”.
Reversible: Either party can change their mind at any point and revoke consent during a sexual encounter.
Informed: Both parties have all the facts and understand what they are consenting to. For example, if a person agreed to have sex with a condom but the other partner did not put one on, there was not full consent.
Enthusiastic: Both parties should be interested and eager. If it’s not an enthusiastic “yes”, it’s a “no”.
Specific: Consent is specific to what is happening in that moment and not automatically transferrable to other types of sexual activity or occasions.
Other messages to convey include:
Direct communication is important: Empower teens to advocate for themselves in sexual relationships and communicate clearly about what they want and don’t want.
Incorporate conversations about consent into discussions about sex/sexuality: Ask questions like: “How can you tell if someone wants to kiss you?”, “How can you communicate to your partner that you’ve changed your mind in the middle of a sexual encounter?”, “How will you know that it’s ok to kiss/touch/have sex with someone if you’ve been drinking?”
Highlight the importance of language: Words matter, and using words that dehumanize or degrade others is not acceptable. Encourage tweens and teens to stand up when they hear “locker room talk”.
Literature is my go-to tool for discussing tough concepts with kids. Kids don’t feel lectured to and you can be sure you’re getting your messaging right. Plus, reading allows kids to look at a book instead of at you (which can be particularly uncomfortable during the awkward tween stage).
The amazing Sarah Miller, who writes the newsletter “Can We Read?” provided the following book recommendations focused on consent. I own and have used several of these books in my own conversations with my kids.
Babies and toddlers: (about 1-2yo)
Will Ladybug Hug? by Hilary Leung
Your Body Belongs to You by Cornelia Maude Spelman
For preschoolers: (about 3-4yo)
Yes! No! A First Conversation About Consent by Megan Madison, Jessica Ralli, and Isabel Roxas
No Means No! by Jayneen Sanders
Can I Give You a Squish? by Emily Nelson
Rissy No Kissies by Katey Howes
For elementary kids: (about 5-10yo)
Let's Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent, and Respect by Jayneed Sanders
Don't Touch My Hair! by Sharee Miller
For tweens and younger teenagers: (11-15yo)
Can We Talk About Consent? by Justin Hancock
What Does Consent Really Mean? by Pete Wallis, Joseph Wilkins, and Thalia Wallis (graphic novel)
It’s important to add: caregivers know their children best -- so while these recommendations include an age range, there is a lot of overlap (all of the titles for preschoolers also apply and appeal to elementary-age children, for instance), so the best way to figure out what works for you is to read these books first and see what resonates.
Other media resources
Peter Alsop’s “My Body” is a fun (but informative) song for younger kids about being in charge of their own bodies.
This video, meant for older kids, went viral a few years ago and uses tea as a metaphor for consent.
Finally, chances are good that your tween or teen’s favorite TV shows provide an opportunity to talk about consent, healthy relationships, and sexuality. Watch an episode with them and then ask them to think critically about what they’ve seen. Listen without judgment and ask questions to help them think about situations from different perspectives.
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