“Mama! Look! She likes it!”
I peek over the stroller to see my daughter sticking her foot in her brother’s face. He grabs it, tickles it, then she laughs and pulls it away before sticking it right out again.
“Your right! She is laughing and wants to keep playing. When she wants to stop you need to stop right away.”
After a few more minutes, she starts to whimper and twist and pushes at him when he tries to grab her.
“Oh! Mama! She is done playing now” he says and settles back in his seat.
This is what the groundwork of teaching consent can look like in young children, although it had nothing to do with sex. My son saw an example of what “enthusiastic consent” looks like and that he should stop when he no longer has it…even if there are no words involved. My daughter learned that she can give enthusiastic consent, and take it away, and when she does the behavior should stop.
Children give us many opportunities to coach them in consent. There are demands for hugs from friends, attempts to climb on adults without asking and visits to the doctor. The outcomes of these interactions may be low-stakes, but they are important stepping stones in showing them how to respect their body, listen to what others want and recognize verbal AND non-verbal messages.
However, we adults have to remember that we also need to model consent. I know I’ve tickled my daughter, even when she starts to push my hand away, because I just love to hear her giggle. Or, I try to plant a kiss on my son’s cheek when he clearly doesn’t want one. I am trying to be mindful to ask “May I give you a kiss?” and also to remind them “If you don’t like it, tell them to stop!” Affection should never be mandatory.
Even adults outside of a child’s caregiver role can play a part. Museum Educators, when we’re teaching we are very careful to ask the caregiver’s permission before taking a child’s picture…but do you ask the child? Even those small gestures reinforce that they have a right to say “no” and it should be respected.
As children get older, the conversations become more nuancedHowever, the groundwork you are laying now means that you’ll be starting out ahead when you get to that point.
Also, you don’t have to go-it alone. There are lots of wonderful resources available for you to read up on consent and get some help with language and answers to difficult questions. Thank you Krista (an amazing preschool educator and friend) for the links. If you have others, please add them in the comments
The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent Ages 1-21
How 7 Things That Have Nothing to Do with Rape Perfectly Illustrate the Concept of Consent
A related topic is recognizing and knowing how to deal with suspected cases of child abuse and neglect. The State of Virginia offers a free, online training module for educators that can be accessed here