Start when they are young
One of the most common questions I get when teaching about consent and body safety is, when will our children be old enough to understand this stuff?
Most people are surprised to hear me say that we can begin teaching our children about body safety and consent when they are babies. I always share some specific tips with parents about what is appropriate for different age ranges – but this is just a guide, every child is different, and you know your child best! At this age, it’s all about getting ourselves comfortable having these conversations.
Teaching babies about body safety and consent
The first thing we can do with babies is to use anatomically correct names. If you are uncomfortable with these words, it can be beneficial to practice saying them aloud to your baby. As your baby gets older, they will know the names of their body parts, and they won’t feel shame in talking to you about it as they grow older. (Keep reading for more on this!)
Another thing we can do with babies is to include them in the process of diaper changes and changing. Narrating what you are doing helps show respect at an early age for their body. Let them know what you are doing and acknowledge their feelings about this.
“Hey buddy, I just need to finish wiping your bum. I can see that you don’t want me to do this, but I do need to clean you up to keep you healthy, but I’m almost finished!”
At this age, it is also important to process your feelings. Teaching children about their bodies can be challenging and uncomfortable for many parents. Give yourself grace and process your concerns or hesitations about teaching children about their bodies.
Teaching toddlers about body safety and consent
With toddlers, we want to model consent by respecting their “no.” Teaching children that “no means no” starts by listening to their no. If they don’t want a hug, don’t force it. If they say stop tickling, stop.
On top of respecting their “no,” we can give them autonomy over who they hug. We want our children to know they are the boss of their bodies, and they don’t have to hug anyone they don’t want to. It can almost be an automatic comment to say, “Give Grandma a hug before we go!” and this is something that I have caught myself saying many times. When we tell our children that they always need to give hugs, it becomes difficult for them to learn that they have a choice when it comes to people touching them and that sometimes it’s okay to say “no” if they don’t feel like a hug.
Instead of: “Give Grandma a hug before we go!”
Ask: “Would you like to give Grandma a hug?” Respect their answer if it’s a no.
At this age, we can also label genitals and other private areas, like their mouth. We want to ensure they understand that no one can touch their private parts except for parents when they are changing/bathing them and sometimes the doctor when the parents are around.
Teaching school-age children about body safety and consent
We want to continue practicing all of the tools mentioned for babies and toddlers with our preschoolers, and we also want to invite their questions. We want to encourage them to ask questions about body safety and give them factual answers! Preschool-age children have the most curious minds. When we have these conversations, they will have questions, and we want to respond to them in a positive way that makes them feel comfortable coming to us whenever they have more questions.
Another thing we can do with preschoolers is to encourage them to wash their private areas during bath time. This helps them take ownership of their body, and if we are helping them with this, we should ask for their consent before we wash those areas.
At this age, we want to start teaching them about trusted adults. These are people who they know they can go to for anything. If they are ever in a situation where they feel uncomfortable, nervous, scared, or hurt, they can feel comfortable talking to any of these trusted adults about this and know that they will help them no matter what!
One of the most important things we want to do is implement a “no secrets” home. We want our children to know that nobody should ever tell them to keep a secret and that they can always come to us if anything ever happens that makes them feel uncomfortable, nervous, or scared.
Finally, we want to teach them how to ask for consent before touching a playmate. We want our children to understand that consent goes both ways. We can start doing this by narrating out loud what happens.
“I heard Tommy say no more hugs. When he says no, we stop trying to hug him right away.”
“I noticed how you listened when Tommy said no more hugs and gave him a high five instead!”
Teach your young kids anatomically correct names of body parts
Many parents feel uncomfortable saying words like “penis” and “vagina,” so they will refer to their child’s private parts with words like “pee-pee,” or they just don’t talk about them at all. There are so many reasons why parents need to overcome the awkwardness around these words and teach children anatomically correct names for their body parts. The following are just a few of the ways this can protect children.
Takes away shame
Teaching children anatomically correct names shows them that there is no shame in talking about their body parts. It makes them more likely to come to us with everything from medical concerns to abuse. We are telling them that there is nothing shameful about using the correct name for body parts. If we avoid talking about body parts and use silly words for them, our children can start to feel like it’s not okay to talk about body parts and be afraid to speak to us if something happens that involved their private parts.
Reduces their vulnerability to abuse
Studies show that children who know the names of their body parts are at a decreased risk for abuse. This could be for several reasons, including that the abuser knows the child has the language to report what is going on and will be understood if they report the abuse. Children who know the correct names of their body parts can describe what happened, which can help ensure the abuser is properly charged.
Sets clear boundaries for what private parts are
When we teach children the anatomically correct names for their body parts, we also want to teach them that these parts are private and that no one else should touch them. When we are setting these boundaries, we can explain that nobody else should be touching their private parts except for a parent who is changing or bathing them and sometimes a doctor if a parent is there too!
Use storytelling to help kids understand consent
The final tip that I wanted to share with you is to use storytelling to help kids trust their internal instincts about body safety. Storytelling is so powerful, and it is one of my favourite tools for teaching children. This tool is so powerful because most kids can easily relate to stories. We can use storytelling to help them learn to trust their internal instincts and to feel like they are in charge of their bodies.
Here are some examples of how we can use storytelling to help kids understand consent and body safety:
“I asked for a hug and noticed you looking away from me. I see you don’t want a hug, and that’s ok.”
“Papa wanted to hold your hand as we walked to the park, and you said no and asked him to walk beside you instead. Papa walked beside you and listened to your no.”
“You wanted to hug your friend, but she pulled away and said no. I love how you were ok with a fist bump instead.”
Teaching children about body safety and consent can reduce their vulnerability to abuse and keep them safe. However, these conversations can be difficult to have with our little ones. Check out our Introduction to Body Safety & Consent for tangible tools to help you prepare for these tricky conversations.