News flash: The idea of “consent” doesn’t only apply to sex and dating. On a more basic level, consent is about getting permission before touching someone or taking their things. Above all, consent is about respecting yourself and others during any situation—and at any age!
You definitely don’t need to wait till your kids are old enough for “the talk” to teach this important life lesson. Helping all kids understand consent early in life will help them play and work better with others.
1. Use the actual word “consent”
That way, kids will learn what it means early on. Here’s a simple definition you can use:
“Consent is when you say ‘yes’ or give someone the ‘green light’ to use or touch something that’s yours. That includes your own body and things that belong to you.”
“So if someone wants to touch your hair, they should get your consent first. And if you want to use someone’s pencil, you need to get their consent first. ”
“Waiting for other people’s consent is one great way to show that we respect and care about them.”
2. Everyday examples of consent
The easiest way to get kids to understand consent is to practice it in everyday situations.
Model it with your own behavior, and encourage them to do the same. For example:
- Before tickling, always ask: “Can I tickle you now?”
- Before using something of theirs, be sure to ask: “Is it OK if I use your crayons?”
- Before helping them get dressed, say: “Would you like help with that?”
3. Listen to the answer
The next (very important) part is waiting for the person’s answer before acting. An answer might be a clear yes or no, or someone might say no by avoiding eye contact or seeming uncomfortable.
The bottom line is this: If there’s no clear positive response, there’s no consent!
Young kids may need extra help with this part. A good way for kids to practice controlling their impulses is to play games like Freeze Dance and Red Light Green Light, where they have to listen and think before making a decision.
Whenever kids do a great job at waiting patiently for consent, be sure to offer praise!
4. Respecting “no”
Sometimes the answer is “no,” and they have to be OK with that too!
To help kids learn to respect when someone says “no,” make a house rule that “no” or “stop” ALWAYS means the person immediately stops.
Parents and kids can practice this at home with a simple game: Take turns tickling or wrestling until the other person says “no” or “stop”—and when they do, take your hands off right away.
Again, whenever kids do show respect for someone’s “no” or “stop,” be sure to point out how well they did!
5. Their body, their choice
Let kids know that they’re in charge of their own bodies. For example:
- If an older cousin wants to wrestle or rough-house, make sure they know they can say stop.
- Instead of “Go give a hug,” ask: “Do you want to give a hug?” And then respect their decision.
- Avoid using kisses as “payment.”
If kids don’t want a hug or kiss from a relative, discuss other ways to show respect—like a secret handshake, wave, or “thank you for coming.” (If relatives are offended, tell them you’re trying to let your kids practice making their own decisions.)
6. Practice ways to say “no”
There are lots of different ways to say “no” or “stop.” Have kids pick out some phrases that feel right to them.
- “No, thank you.”
- “Please stop, I don’t like what you’re doing.”
- “Can you give me some space?”
- “I’m not interested in this right now.”
- “I’d rather not do this.”
- “Not now. Let me think about it.”
- “I need to go do something else now.”
7. Gradually expand the meaning of consent
After kids master the basics, they can learn about other situations where you need someone’s consent before doing something. For example:
- Taking a picture of someone
- Posting or sending a picture of someone
- Sharing personal details about someone else
- Using someone’s artistic ideas
- Giving medical treatment
Brainstorm other scenarios and discuss whether they require consent.
By the time they reach sex ed or their first romantic relationship, they’ll absorb the lesson on consent much more naturally.