These days, sexual harassment and rape — in the workplace, on college campuses and in schools — are making frequent and frightening headlines. Each time a new case comes to light, parents wonder: How can I keep my child safe?
Sex education experts say an important first step is teaching children about consent. This can start from a young age, as early as 1 — without bringing up sex and the more complicated subjects surrounding it.
Teaching a young child that they have control over who touches their body and that they, in turn, must respect other people’s bodies, is a critical step in ensuring they know what’s appropriate — now, and when they’re older.
Where to begin?
“First and foremost, consent is something that we’re all already teaching our kids,” says Marnie Goldenberg, a Vancouver, B.C.-based sex educator and author of the website Sexplainer (sexplainer.com). Goldenberg says when we tell kids that they need to ask a friend for a toy before taking it, we’re teaching consent.
Amy Lang (birdsandbeesandkids.com), a Seattle expert on childhood sexuality who teaches workshops and classes for parents, says that children also need to hear a simple definition of consent: “Consent means everyone agrees. If someone doesn’t agree, that’s not consent,” she says.
Role model and role play
Lang recommends capitalizing on how children learn best: by watching and doing. That means your children should see you practicing consent with other adults and children. “Have a personal rule that you ask first before you touch a child,” Lang says. “If they say no, as a responsible adult, you respect the child’s no.”
Kids should also have the opportunity to practice via role-playing. “It’s a great way to learn, and it’s non-threatening,” Lang says. She recommends simply saying: “Let’s practice: Can I have a hug?” Plus, this is a good way for young siblings to learn together.
Alyssa Royse, a Seattle sex educator and athletic coach for all ages, says that parents don’t always like the idea of teaching and encouraging young children — who are often already testing the waters of defiance — to say no. “But if you do it, you lay the groundwork for children to advocate for themselves to adults, even in positions of authority,” she says.
Don’t force affection
Whether it’s at a family gathering or a play date, experts agree that telling a child to hug or show affection sends the wrong message about consent. Instead, for example, ask if they want to hug their grandma. If the child says no, just move on.
Lang says you can get relatives on board with a simple explanation: “You can tell them that we want our kids to understand that they have the right to say no if someone wants to touch them in any way. If they know safe adults ask first and respect their no, they’re safer overall.”
Lang makes an exception for cultural displays of affection. In some cultures, a hug or kiss on the cheek upon greeting is customary. “If it’s the cultural norm, you can explain that to kids and offer an alternative … if you really get the uh-oh feeling, offer a hand” to shake rather than going in for a hug.
Learn to check in
Joanna Schroeder (joannaschroederauthor.tumblr.com/parenting) is a writer who has focused on teaching consent and co-wrote a 2011 story about teaching it to children that went viral. She says that parents can teach children from an early age not just about control over their own bodies, but also the importance of checking in with others.
She cites a recent snowball fight between her two sons, ages 9 and 12, that went awry. She told her sons that it’s best to ask before throwing the first snowball and keep watching each other’s faces throughout the fight. “If he seems unhappy, check in,” she says.
In the same vein, Goldenberg encourages her boys to use a “safe word” — an unrelated code word that stops the action under any circumstances — when wrestling or playing intense physical games: “When they say ‘airport,’ it means things are going off the rails a little bit and we need to renegotiate this game.” Establishing a safe word might prevent some tears, but more important, it reinforces the power and importance of communication and listening, even — or especially — during physical activity.
When children are in sports, clubs or other activities where they’ll be with a non-parent adult, tell them directly that it’s never OK for an adult to touch their bodies without asking, Royse and Lang say. And be explicit that an adult should never touch your child’s genitals.
“Tell your kids: Every adult knows it’s not OK to touch a kid’s private parts,” Lang says.
Goldenberg says that children need to know it’s never their fault if an adult touches them inappropriately — even if they felt curious or interested in the attention. “The child is never in the wrong,” she says.
“Translate up” when it’s appropriate
Goldenberg compares teaching consent to building the foundation of a castle: It takes time, but it’s worth it to help kids feel empowered and comfortable making safe and healthy decisions about their bodies.
It could also help make the discussion about sex easier when the time comes, Lang says.
“Later on, when we’re talking about sexual consent, you can easily translate it up: People agree to have sex, and when you’re older and your body is grown up, you and your partner will agree,” she says.