I have a seven-year-old son and I want to start teaching him about consent. Do you have any resources and tools for me as a parent to help him learn about consent as a kid?
— Proactive Parent
The brilliant Dutch sex education curriculum starts what they call “sexuality education” early and often for their students. Children as young as five years old start talking about respecting their own and others’ bodies and making choices that feel good to them in this model — essential building blocks to the gender-and-sexuality-inclusive, medically accurate, and consent-focused sex education they receive in their public schools as middle and high school students.
And they do so with impressive outcomes: Research done at our very own UMass Amherst in 2011 found that among 12- to 25-year-olds in the Netherlands, most say they “wanted” and had “fun” during their first sexual experiences. By comparison, a 2004 national survey done by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy reported that 66 percent of sexually active American teens surveyed said they wished that they had waited longer to have sex for the first time.
Teaching consent early on in your child’s life matters and can happen in small, everyday ways. Conversations about consent don’t even need to be tied explicitly to sex, though they can be, to make a positive impact on the consent practices used in their future sexual interactions.
Teach your child to ask other people, especially his peers, questions such as “Is it okay if …?” before he touches them or their things. Set an example with your own actions by asking people these same questions, especially in his presence.
Tell your child that he’s the only person who owns his body and help him set his own physical boundaries. Require other children and adults in his life to ask permission before hugging, kissing, picking up or otherwise touching him. (Yes — even family members.)
When your child makes a statement that he doesn’t like a particular physical touch — for example, when people tousle his hair— teach him what he can say to assert that boundary. For example, he might tell someone: “It’s okay if you hug me, but please don’t touch my hair.”
Send the message that consenting to one thing doesn’t mean consenting to all things. Consenting to a kiss on the cheek doesn’t mean he’s consenting to all physical touch that may go along with that. Consent needs to be asked for and granted before every physical touch, every time, and can be revoked at any time — for those interacting with him and those he interacts with.
Reinforce the requirement for an “enthusiastic yes” by making sure he hears a verbal “yes” response to his consent question before touching rather than simply not hearing a “no” or seeing a shrug.
Incorporate asking about people’s pronouns as a normal part of introductions. Today’s children are growing up in a world of greater and more visible variety in the realms of sexuality, gender, and our bodies. Respecting someone’s gender identity is an important part of consent practice and leaves space for your child to discover and define themselves, for themselves as they grow older. Questions like “Do you respect me, my pronouns, and my identity?” go hand-in-hand with questions like “Do you respect my boundaries, body, and consent?” More about pronouns and why they’re important can be found in the Trans* Ally Workbook by Davey Shlasko.
Amazon.com has a collection of consent books for kids such as Your Body Belongs to You by Cornelia Spelman. Also read “How to Teach Consent to Kids in 5 Simple Steps” by Michelle Dominique Burk on EverydayFeminism.com.
Our Whole Lives is a sex education curriculum book that has great, age-appropriate sections on consent easily adaptable to teach one-on-one with your kid or, get a group of his peers and their parents together and teach a class in your home.
Shout out: A special thank you to the parents who offered me their great input as to what to include in this column via social media. It takes a (sometimes virtual) village to raise a consent-conscious child!
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a pleasure-positive sex writer and educator living in the Pioneer Valley. She has a website bursting with sexual advice, resources, and workshops at yanatallonhicks.com.