Remember the first (and probably last) time your parents initiated “the sex talk”? Maybe your mom refused to say the word “vagina” and instead referred to it as “down there.” Perhaps your dad used some weird baseball analogy to describe how conception works. However it all went down, chances are that it was embarrassing, uncomfortable, and your dad sweated so much he had to excuse himself briefly to apply more Speed Stick. But even the chillest moms and dads often skip over the most crucial part of “the sex talk” with their kids: consent.
And whether you are the parental figure in a child’s life right now or desire to be one in the future, you may want to brush up on your (consensual) birds and bees speech ASAP.
To give you a helping hand, we chatted with sexologist Cath Hakanson about five simple, but effective, things parents can do to teach kids about consent.
And an honest chat with children about healthy, consensual sex could not come any sooner. Time and again, society fails to educate young people — particularly young women — about sexual health. What’s more, in the United States, abstinence-only sex education is the rule, not the exception — and studies show it actually hurts kids as they grow into adolescence.
Plus, if we’ve learned anything from the Brock Turner sexual assault case, the Steubenville rape, and the countless sexual assault survivors who have shared their stories as part of the #MeToo movement, teaching children about consent isn’t elective — it’s required. Or at least, it should be.
But how young is too young teach kids about consent? According to Hakanson, an author and creator of Sex Ed Rescue, the consent conversation is ageless.
“Basically, you can start talking to them around the age of three or four, and even earlier,” said Hakanson via email. “[For example,] you can ask a 2 year old, ‘Can I give you a kiss?’ or ‘Do you want to wear your red or green shoes today?’ These are early lessons about consent.”
In fact, for Hakanson, the earlier kids learn about consent, the better. Even though conversations about consent are more relevant to prepubescent tweens and sexually maturing teens, Hakanson believes in laying down the foundations for consent when children are small.
“If you can talk about consent when kids are little, then it makes it much easier to talk about sexual consent [with them when they are older],” said Hakanson. “Plus, it is a skill that will empower your child in the playground. And it’s an everyday life skill.”
So, what are some ways we can teach kids about consent?
1. Teach them that they are the bosses of their own bodies, and they have a say in who touches them.
Consent forms the bedrock of healthy sexual relationships by placing value on bodily integrity. Children need to know their bodies are theirs and theirs alone. So empower the kids in your life to call the shots about their bodies and allow them to decide what happens to them.
For example, if the child has a rash on their genitals that requires ointment, Hakanson suggests saying something like, “We need to put some cream on your vulva because you have a rash. Would you like to put the cream on or can I?”
By giving kids the choice, and honoring that choice, they absorb the lesson that they have dominion over their own bodies.
2. Teach kids to ask for permission before they touch someone or take something.
We’re not just talking about asking for permission to eat a delicious cookie or watch TV before bedtime (though that’s important, too!). We’re talking about encouraging the child in your life to ask for another child’s permission before touching, embracing, or taking something from them.
Hakanson recommends encouraging children to ask questions like, “Can I have that toy?” or “Is it okay if I give you a hug?” and to wait to receive a “yes” before they act. When children learn that they require permission before physically acting on another human being, they learn to respect other people’s boundaries.
3. Model consent yourself.
If you grew up in the 1980s, then you probably remember an anti-drug commercial in which a father confronts his teen son about smoking marijuana. When the dad asks the boy where he learned to smoke drugs, the kid screams at his pops, “From you! I learned it from watching you!” The point: Kids often learn by example.
So if you want your child to understand consent, model it for them. Ask for your child’s permission before you touch them.
According to Hakanson, if you want to kiss your child goodnight, ask them, “Is it okay if I give you a goodnight kiss?” and honor their response. Don’t forget to ask permission from other children, your partner, and really, everybody you meet, too. Kids are always watching, you know.
4. Don’t force affection.
Think back to when you were a kid and your mom made you hug that weird, distant relative that you didn’t really know. Remember how uncomfortable and angry it made you feel to be forced to do something that gave you bad feels?
Just like your child needs another person’s permission to hug them, so does someone who wants to hug your child. And your child — and your child only — is the only one who can give that permission.
So after Grandma drops by for a visit and she’s ready to walk out the door, instead of insisting the child in your life hug her, Hakanson recommends you give your kid the choice of how they say goodbye. For example, “Grandma is going now. Would you like to give her a hug or kiss? Or do you just want to say goodbye?” Trust us, Grandma’s feelings won’t be hurt.
5. Read picture books about consent with them.
We all know reading is fundamental. We think consent is, too. And what better way to teach children about consent than by reading books about consent with them? Hakanson’s compiled a recommended reading list to get you started, including Tess Rowley’s Everyone’s Got a Bottom, and woke bedtime books by Jayneen Sanders like My Body! What I Say Goes!, No Means No!, and Let’s Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent, and Respect.
So even if you don’t have the words (yet) to talk about consent with your kids, these authors do — and their words can help keep the conversation going.
And for Hakanson, keeping the conversation about consent going is what it’s all about, especially as children grow up and become young adults.
“[Consent] is an ongoing conversation that we need to have with kids,” said Hakanson. “It is complicated and has many different nuances. [But] the more we chat, the greater the chances that our kids will understand it and apply consent to their own lives.”