Teaching kids early about consent helps protect them when they’re young. It also builds the language and skills they’ll need to navigate relationships as a teenager with confidence and respect.
Not sure where to start? It may be a relief to know that it doesn’t come down to one big conversation. You’ll have lots of small opportunities over the years to discuss consent and model what consent looks like.
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Teaching Consent to Toddlers and Pre-Schoolers
Yes, teaching consent in early childhood is possible! You can explain to your toddler or preschooler that some people like to hug and cuddle, while others prefer to high five or wave. Encourage your child to ask their friends if they would like a hug, before hugging them.
You also want to model consent behavior for your child. This means you should never push your child into hugging someone. Instead of saying “Go give auntie a hug!” You could say, ”We’re leaving now. Do you want to give uncle a high five or hug goodbye?’
Young children learn through play, so you could also try teaching consent activities. If your child likes tickling, you could play a game where they say “go” and “stop” and you tickle and stop tickling accordingly.
They will enjoy the power they have to control the tickling. You can then explain that if someone says they don’t want to be touched or tickled, it’s really important to stop.
Teaching Consent to Elementary School-Age Children
As your child grows, continue to discuss good and bad touch. Good touch is touch that they consent to and feel good about, like a hug from a friend. Bad touch is anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, strange, or bad.
Sexual predators use shame and secrecy, so encourage open conversation with your child. Emphasize that they should tell you about any unwanted touching. Add that they should never worry about getting in trouble or hurting someone when it comes to their body and consent.
Role-playing different situations can help your child with expressing any discomfort they may feel in the future. You can have your child practice saying things like, “Please take your hand away,” or “I don’t want a hug right now.”
You can also show your child they have bodily autonomy in broader ways. For example, you can tell your child about what will happen at a doctor’s appointment. Then you can ask them if they have any questions or worries, for example.
This shows that kids don’t have to simply go along when it comes to issues of their body. They should consider their feelings and express their concerns.
Similarly, if you would like to post a photo of your child on social media, ask them first if they’re okay with that. By showing you respect your child’s wishes, you’re teaching them to expect the same respect from others in their lives.
Talking about Consent With Your Teenager
While teenagers may know that “no means no,” it’s important to explain that people show they don’t consent in other ways too. This includes silence and body language, or phrases like “I’m not sure.”
Sex educators talk about only proceeding in intimacy when they have enthusiastic consent. Explain that if it’s ever not obvious that a person wants to continue with any kind of intimacy, it’s important to ask. Emphasize that even if someone consents, they can change their mind, including just before or during sexual intimacy.
As these conversations can be challenging, you can use videos as a starting point. This video makes compares seeking consent with asking someone if they want tea, in a fun and informative way.
Another video shows teens asking for consent and responding respectfully to “no,” starting with a request to play basketball. The accompanying guide for parents includes questions to reflect after watching the video.
Maressa Brown. How to teach your child about consent from birth. Parents . Link
Child Mind Institute. How to talk to kids about sex and consent. Link
Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. Talking to your kids about sexual assault. Link
Teach Consent. Why teach my kids about consent? Link
Sally Dillon. Teaching consent to children: 'The joke is where it starts and rape is where it ends'. The Guardian. Link
Connect with UPMC
From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.