Teaching Toddlers and Preschoolers About Consent, For Their Own Bodies and Others’

Thursday June 9, 2016

With the recent Stanford rape case bearing heavily on our minds, friends and I have been thinking more about how to teach our own kids about consent and, it’s important corollary, non-consent. Little kids are bulldozers when it comes to other people’s bodies, and what better time than now to explain to them that other people’s bodies and feelings are to be respected, and that their bodies and feelings are worthy of respect too.

The problem is that this is such a wide-ranging topic, it can be hard to know where to even start. Especially when it comes to little kids.

One friend forwarded along this very helpful primer on how to teach consent to kids from ages 1 to 21. The key thing here is that, yes, education comes early, before the kids are even in school. The writers emphasize teaching empathy at this age, and to understand that if someone says ‘no’ or ‘stop’ that it means to actually stop. Importantly, this also means not forcing our children to engage in physical conduct they feel uncomfortable with (like giving someone a hug or kiss.) (You should really just go read it.)

At Bean’s preschool, I’ve noticed the teachers use the term “uncomfortable” for when one child is doing something that bothers another. I’ve adopted it at home with pretty good success.” It makes me uncomfortable when you jump on me like that. Please stop.” “Bean, you’re making Daddy uncomfortable when you do that.” Bean has adopted it too, letting us know when she feels uncomfortable (when brushing her hair or if her shoe is on wrong), which is a huge step towards body awareness and being willing to speak up for herself.

Montessori also provides some tips here, again starting from a very (no, even earlier than you’re thinking) age. In Montessori From the Start, Lillard and Polk discuss honoring your baby’s body. Explaining to your baby what you are doing at every stage (“I’m going to put this onesie over your head now. Now I’m putting your arm in your sleeve.” or “Ok, I’m going to change your diaper. Let’s take your diaper off.”)

As your baby gets mobile, they mention always picking your baby up from the front (even if that means racing to get in front of them) rather than from behind, since picking a person up unexpectedly from behind can be surprising, unnerving, disrespectful, and upsetting. This goes along with toddlers too — not to yank a toddler off the ground from behind, but to make sure you are facing her when you pick her up.

Montessori teachers also do a fantastic job of asking permission before engaging with a child’s body (“may I help you with your jacket?” “may I help you blow your nose?”) or doing something for them. Their ability to use every interaction with children as a teaching tool is enviable. Children learn by example, and what a terrific way to teach your own child that you respect her body.

Have you thought about this with your own little kids? How have you started to teach your kids about consent?

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