Teaching Consent To Kids At Every Age
When did you start teaching consent to your kids?
My kiddo was only one when my father-in-law said, “Can I pick you up?”, she cried, “NOOOO!”, and he did it anyway. I had my Mama Rage going, stared him in the eye, and icily told him, “She said no”. His eyes got wide, and he put her down. Later that day he approached me and apologized. He said he’d never thought of it that way before, that a toddler could say no.
It’s never too early to teach consent because consent is about so much more than sex. Consent is something continually negotiated, woven into all of our social interactions.
Teaching consent as a part of everyday life will simultaneously protect your child, help them to be a more empathetic person, give them the voice to speak up for others, and show that veganism is (not radical at all, but) the ethically obvious way to live.
The mantra at our house is, “We make choices for our own bodies”. This works whether it’s about your kiddo not wanting to hug someone, or if you’re explaining why you’re all done letting them ride on your back.
For example, when it’s time to change an activity, say, “I get to choose for my body, and you get to choose for yours. Yes, it was okay with me for a while, but we all get to choose for our own bodies, and I’m saying no for my body right now. I’d love to do something else with you though!” This can serve as a way to redirect attention and it is a gentle reminder that we all make the rules for our own bodies and that we are able to change our mind about what we feel comfortable with at any given moment.
Teaching Consent Never Stops
You can communicate that lesson, that consent given once is not consent forever, during playdates as well: “Yes, you and Tzivia held hands earlier, and I think that was really fun for both of you. Right now, though, Tzivia said she doesn’t want you to touch her.”
Our pets are great reminders to listen/look for the nonverbal “No’s” as well. Teach your child how, even without language, a cat can tell us with their tail, or a dog with their growl, that they want their space. So while, ideally, everyone will learn to clearly say, “I don’t want to be touched right now”, or “You can tickle my foot right now, but not anywhere else, and keep checking in with me”, that voice can be hard to find, especially when someone’s already feeling uncomfortable.
The #MeToo movement (and many of our own experiences, as children and adults) tell us how power dynamics can make those words hard to find. Even when we try to communicate, people have not traditionally been socialized to listen. So most important is teaching everyone to watch and listen for any and all cues, to recognize when someone seems hesitant, to check in, and to aim for enthusiastic consent.
An important aspect of teaching body autonomy, teaching consent and self-respect is standing up for each other. When I see a kid (my kid, any kid) cowering from another kid’s well-intentioned hug, I swoop in. I ask, “I see you leaning away. Do you want to hug Arthur right now?” My 3-year-old is still working on speaking up without me there, but with my question, she’s able to say, “No, I don’t want a hug right now”. She goes away feeling safe, seen, and respected. The other kid now has a model for how to ask, a greater understanding that their good intentions don’t automatically make the touch okay, and also a model for how they too could say no in the future.
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While it may seem obvious to everyone to step in and advocate for an individual who does not want to be touched, we need to translate that ideology to our animal friends as well. We should step in when someone’s caging/milking/killing animals without consent. Intentions don’t matter to the creature who is being harmed. So when farming animals is portrayed as wholesome and loving, we must remember that no matter what kind of grass-fed/cage-free propaganda the farming industry forces on us, none of those animals consented to what is being done to them.
Just as we want to step in as an ally for our friends and our family when we see them receiving touch without consent, we can be allies for other animals too, and hopefully, we can all find the strength to speak up for ourselves and others.
In most ways, this is an ideal we can really live by. But, yes, there are moments in parenting when “We make choices for our own bodies” breaks down when you have to make decisions for your kid (brushing their teeth, putting on their coat) without their consent. We can aim to only do this when necessary, to have a baseline of body autonomy, and to always explain the reasoning behind these exceptions. Tell your child gently that you hear them, and you look forward to when they can take care of themselves in these ways, but until they can, you’re going to help to keep them safe and healthy. Work together to find ways to make these exceptions happen more on their terms (a different tooth-brushing position, a different coat).
The patience you put into this will do wonders for their empathy and their self-respect, and you might find that once you’ve modeled consent enough times, it will be easier for you to demand it in your own life also.
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