This might seem like a radical idea to many people, but teaching kids about healthy boundaries and consent is something that we can (and should) begin to do at a young age. In fact, many ways that we “conventionally” interact with children can inadvertently send mixed messages about consent and body autonomy.
When I talk about teaching children boundaries around their body, and about consent at a young age, many parents wonder if I am suggesting that we teach toddlers about sex. I am not. What I am suggesting is that we teach our children that they have the right to decide who touches their body, how their body is touched (generally speaking), and that it is ok to decline someone’s touch or physical affection. Think about it – do we want our teenagers to understand these basic principles? Of course we do. These skills, and the feelings of agency over our own bodies, don’t just suddenly develop when we become young adults. Our children will have much healthier (and safer) experiences if we lay the groundwork for body autonomy, healthy boundaries, and consent at a young age.
So, how do we do that? We accomplish this goal through teaching, modeling, and being very mindful about our own interactions with our children.
Here are some guidelines to get us started:
1). If our child declines a kiss, or tells us to stop tickling, listen. Sometimes, I will ask my daughter if I can give her a hug, or ask if she has any kisses to give Mommy; and sometimes, her answer is no. I could respond to this in several ways: I could hug or kiss her anyway, I could attempt a “playful” pout, or I could ask her over and over again until she gives me one. But what message would that send her? Not one I want her to learn. I do not want her to think that it is ok for anyone to pressure her into physical affection. I do not want her to think that it is normal (or ok) for someone to make her feel guilty or punished because she chose not to give a kiss or a hug. Although my “inside-Mommy” might pout, I make sure to keep a smile on my face and reply with, “thanks for letting me know,” or “you are the boss of your body,” or a simple “Ok!” I want to teach her that it is ALWAYS ok to say no to a touch, a kiss, or a hug. And that she never has to feel badly about it. Do I sometimes just snuggle and hug her without asking? Of course I do; but if she asks me to stop, I immediately honor that request.
The same goes for tickling. In our house, if a child tells us to stop tickling, we stop. Immediately. I will often reflect the language back – “you told me to stop, so I am stopping!” Certainly, there are times when my daughter will say, “Tickle me again!” and so I will. But I want her to be able to explore and understand that the power of her words are just that – powerful. And we will listen and honor her words by respecting boundaries in this regard.
2). Ask our children if they want to give a hug. This one is tricky – particularly for certain members of my family who have a strong cultural lens where physical affection among family (or even strangers) is customary. It is commonplace for us to say to our children, “hug your uncle,” or “kiss your grandmother,” even if it seems like they don’t want to. Instead of making these demands, we should ask if they would like to give a hug (and accept a “no” if that is the answer!).
We should think carefully about this, and consider whether or not we want to condition our children to learn that they must comply when told to give a kiss or a hug, just the way we would expect them to listen when told to brush their teeth or use gentle hands. In our family, we see these as different and distinct. While there are a number of demands that my child must meet on a daily basis, kissing and hugging people if she does not want to is not one of them. That is her choice and hers alone. I want her to have the confidence in my presence, as well as when I am not there. It is profoundly important to me that she does not internalize the belief that if someone demands a physical touch, she must comply. I know it is difficult to think about someone manipulating our children this way, but it is critical that we teach them they can say no (for girls and boys, for young children and adults).
3). Teach our children to ask others if they want a hug. This is the inverse of the above. It does not hurt to model for our kids by asking them, “Can I give you a hug?” We can also teach our children to ask friends for permission. If we strive for this to be the typical interaction, we are laying groundwork for our children to understand that asking before we touch someone is normal and respectful, and not something that should feel awkward.
4). Teach our kids there are many ways to say no. While it seems like the favorite word of most 2- and 3-year-olds is “no,” we can help our children by teaching them to read cues. The ability to read emotion in someone’s face, or understand body language, is a skill set that has value well beyond consent (it is the foundation for social skills, reading a crowd, making connections, and even closing business deals). If we are walking a child through the above interactions and they don’t say “no,” but otherwise make it clear they do not want a hug (e.g., pulling away, looking hesitant), I might say, “you are keeping your hands by your side which shows me you don’t want a hug, and that’s ok!” When children do use their words to explicitly express a boundary (e.g., I don’t like that; stop; no), we should thank them for telling us how they feel. And remind them of the next point…
5). Be explicit about agency – “you are the boss of your body.” This is a common phrase that we should say to children. If they decline a hug or a kiss (or ask for one from us), or if they ask for privacy while using the bathroom (my daughter’s new favorite thing), I usually respond by respecting this request and saying, “you are the boss of your body.” This also works as a good reminder if she is playing in a way another child doesn’t like (e.g., is too rough, or tickling too much and a child asks her to stop), I might say, “you need to stop, he is the boss of his body.”
6). Talk openly and often about boundaries and bodies. When we lay the groundwork for open and healthy communication about bodies and boundaries, we establish a foundation for our children to turn to us as reliable sources of information on difficult and taboo subjects. We also model that talking about boundaries and bodies with people we are close to is important and should be part of a healthy dialogue.
Our conversations with young children can have a lasting impact on their sense of control and autonomy of their own bodies, and a respect for the autonomy of others. Planting these seeds early will help our children develop safe and healthy relationships throughout their lives.
Remember that what each child needs is different. Dr. Adams provides individual (Skype or phone based) parent coaching to address a range of concerns (e.g., sleep struggles, tantrums, limit testing, co-parenting issues). Email Dr. Adams for more information, or to schedule an appointment at firstname.lastname@example.org, or learn more here: www.personalizedparenting.org.