Parenting is a constant learning curve for sure, and we’ll be the first to admit we don’t always get it right. But there are some topics that, while not always easy, are essential for us to speak about with our kids. Stranger danger, the birds and bees and puberty being amongst them. But there’s one area that feels especially tricky when it comes to important discussions with our children – of all ages – and that’s the subject of consent. Teaching our kids the very definition of the word: ‘permission for something to happen, or an agreement about something’ is a hugely broad subject that can apply to everything from sexual consent to cookies being stored when we log onto a website! Here’s how to have the discussion with your kids whether they’re a toddler or a teen (or somewhere in between)…
Teaching toddlers to preschoolers about consent
The earlier you start mentioning the word ‘consent’ to tots, the better. When little ones know about boundaries – their own and other people’s – they are also learning about consent. If your child doesn’t want granny to give them a big, sloppy kiss, then they should never be forced to do so. Likewise, if they are annoying a sibling or other child (it happens, we get it), you need to catch them in the moment and explain that the other person as had enough, and they need to stop.
Talk to your child about reading non-verbal messages too. Using books as well as real life situations is a great way to encourage kids to recognise when someone is happy, or getting upset. Teaching children that ‘no’ absolutely means ‘no’ is essential, and the easiest way to do this is through letting them have a say in everyday choices. Encouraging them to choose their wardrobe, deciding how to do their hair, or picking what’s for lunch lets them know that they have a voice.
We love these books as easy tools to use during ongoing chats about consent with younger kids:
No Means No by Jayneen Sanders: This picture book was written with kids age three to nine years in mind, and teaches all about personal boundaries, body boundaries and making choices that feel right.
Do You Have a Secret? by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos: Written for kids from age around four to nine years, it helps little ones distinguish between good and bad secrets, encourages children to explore their feelings, and to speak openly about things that trouble them.
Personal Space Camp by Julia Cook: This witty, rhyming picture book is a fun read that addresses the complex issue of respect for physical boundaries for kids age five to eight years.
Teaching tweens about consent
Carry on encouraging your school-age children to talk about their feelings, and in particular feelings that make them feel good, and ones that make them feel bad. This could also be the time to start talking about trickier subjects. Always use an approach that doesn’t cause them embarrassment. Encourage them to feel comfortable talking about sensitive subjects: the more direct and ‘no big deal’ you are with your children, the more at ease they will be talking about these subjects now and in the future.
At this age, saying ‘no’ may be part of pretend play with their friends, so it’s really important to teach them how to distinguish between play no and real no. It’s definitely worth teaching them about using a ‘safe word’ they can use with both friends and family. That word can be used to stop all activity whether it’s because a rough and tumble game got out of hand, or that they just need a time out. Explain to them how to use that safe word during play if they need to, and remind them to talk about safe words with their friends too.
Kids also need to know that their body is their own, and that if they don’t want to hug or kiss someone, they can refuse. Yes, that aforementioned granny might be upset if her precious grandchild no longer wants to be crushed in a giant hug, but granny also needs to be on board with the ‘respect’ and ‘consent’ game. She’ll get over it.
Try some of these books to reinforce your discussions about all kinds of consent:
Some Secrets Should Never be Kept by Jayneen Sanders: Written for kids up to around 12 years old, this beautifully illustrated book deals with keeping children safe from inappropriate touch. Do check the notes and discussion questions at the back of the book which support both the reader and child when talking about what you’ve read.
NO Trespassing – This is MY Body! by Pattie Fitzgerald: Dealing with personal safety, private parts and the ‘thumbs up, thumbs down’ system, this book also talks about the ‘uh-oh feeling’ kids should be aware of when it comes to keeping secrets.
Let’s Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent and Respect by Jayneen Sanders: This book explores these concepts in a kid-friendly way and provides familiar scenarios for children to engage with and discuss. It is through these vital discussions that children will learn the meaning of body boundaries, consent and respect.
Teaching teenagers about consent
As your kids get older (in the blink of an eye it seems), it’s time to start talking about boundaries in sexual relationships and the right to say no. It is equally important to talk to boys AND girls about this. It is imperative to let them know that if at any time during a sexual encounter they feel uneasy, uncomfortable or want to change their mind, they have every right to STOP.
You also need to have frank discussions on how your teenager should not agree to sex because they feel pressured, or because ‘everyone else is doing it’. By keeping these chats open and honest, you will also be encouraging them to feel at ease in being able to continue talking to you about their sexual relationships and the concerns they may have. Yep, we know it’s kinda hard for us to think about our teenagers having sex, but we all know it happens and we absolutely want it to be something that our kids can talk to us about.
Encourage your teenagers to read these books to give them a really thorough understanding of how important this topic is, and keep checking in with them:
Ask: Building Consent Culture by Kitty Stryker: In this powerful anthology, editor and activist Kitty Stryker gives readers the basic building blocks for a culture of consent and features persuasive writing about sexual equality and social responsibility in law, government, work, and everyday life.
Unslut: A Diary and a Memoir by Emily Lindin: All teens should read this diary of a middle-school girl who was slut shamed after going to “third base” with her boyfriend. It provides great context and perspective for open discussions with your child about this subject.
What Does Consent Really Mean? by Pete Wallis: Following the sexual assault of a classmate, a group of teenage girls find themselves discussing the term consent, what it actually means for them in their current relationships, and how they act and make decisions with peer influence. Joined by their male friends who offer another perspective, this rich graphic novel uncovers the need for more informed conversations with young people.
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