The earlier we reinforce messages of consent, the more our kids will learn real respect and healthy boundaries for their own bodies and others’. Consent is not just an important part of sex education these days — it’s also about fostering mutual respect on the playground, in the classroom, at family gatherings, and more. And that can be taught at any age.
The building blocks of consent can start with modeling respectful behavior in everyday situations, like asking for permission before sharing food from your kiddo’s plate, or honoring a child’s “no” when they don’t want a hug, kiss, or tickle from a family member.
But what happens when little kids refuse to do things that they actually do need to do? If we force them, we’re just teaching them that their “no” or their feelings don’t mean anything, and that an authority figure should ultimately have control over what happens to their body — which is not an ideal dynamic to create.
So how do we balance consent with stuff that kids just have to do, such as basic health and hygiene tasks? Think: going to the potty, getting dressed, brushing hair, bathing, going to bed, or taking medicine.
Here are some approaches that can help you balance bodily respect with the practical matters of life. Check out these examples of what to say, and come up with your own version of what works for your family!
Turn on your imagination to make the task more fun. When you reframe something as an age-appropriate story or adventure, they’re more likely to get excited about completing the task at hand.
Example: If your child doesn’t like getting their hair combed, get creative with it and say, “Oh no, I see a nest of birdies living in your hair! Let’s get these tangles out to set them free!”
Ask for help
When kids feel involved and valued, they’re more likely to cooperate — plus, it teaches them some practical life skills. So give them a role in the process!
Example: When a kid really doesn’t want to comply with the bedtime routine, get them to help you with yours: “Can you help me pick out my PJs so we can get ready for bed together?”
Try to understand from their perspective why they might be resisting a basic part of their routine. By asking your child some questions, you’ll help them feel respected, and then you can try to come up with a solution together.
Example: When a baby or toddler refuses to get their diaper/pull-up changed, you can ask, “Are the wipes too cold? How about I warm them up in my hand first.”
Kids understandably want a sense of control over what’s happening to them. You can give them that by coming up with options that sound appealing that they can choose from. The key is to make sure you’re okay with both options, so they’re free to pick either one without interfering with what needs to be done.
Example: When kids have to take a dose of medication that they hate, make them an offer, such as, “You can take a big drink as soon as you take the medicine. Would you like chocolate milk or juice?”
Consider what actually needs to get done right now. Perhaps there’s a compromise or alternative method that could work for both of you, or a way to involve them in the process.
Example: If your child keeps refusing to sit on the toilet but they look like they’re about to wet their pants, suggest: “Let’s sit on the potty for a count of 5, and if you still don’t have to go we can get right back to this game.”
Instead of getting so frustrated that you start threatening punishments that are unrelated to the situation (“If you don’t get dressed right now, I’m taking the iPad away for a week!”), try to think about the real consequences of what they’re refusing to do. Calmly explain those, and then give them a minute to consider their choice.
Example: When your young child won’t brush their teeth, lay it out like this: “If you keep stalling, we won’t have time for bedtime stories.” For older kids, a natural consequence may sound more like, “Remember, if you have cavities, part of your allowance goes toward dental bills.”
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