5 Ways to Teach Kids About Consent

5 Ways to Teach Kids About Consent

My boys — now aged 3 and 6 — are constantly asking questions about bodies and growing up and how babies get into mommies’ bellies. I don’t think it’s ever too early to answer questions about sex; and likewise, it’s never too early to teach kids about consent. Here are five ways I’ve tried to show them how to respect themselves and others…

We often tell our boys that they’re the boss of their bodies — I love that it’s a clear, age-appropriate phrase (every kid understands the concept of boss!). If Toby wants privacy while getting dressed, I’ll say, “For sure, you’re the boss of your body.” If Anton doesn’t want to kiss grandma, I’ll say, “You’re the boss of your body; it’s up to you.” If they’re playing with another child who doesn’t want a hug, I’ll remind them, “He’s the boss of his body, you need to stop.” You can see how empowered each child feels — especially three-year-old Anton, who, as the little brother, is quite literally not the boss of anything else. :)

The feminist writer Jessica Valenti, author of Sex Object, recently told me this eye-opening tip: “It’s important to normalize a healthy reaction to the rejection of affection. So, if I ask my daughter for a kiss on the cheek and she says not right now, I smile and say, ‘Okay!’ I want her to know that the appropriate reaction to saying ‘no’ to physical affection is saying fine and moving on. Not a guilt trip, not anger, not sulking.” It was a lightbulb moment. Before, when Anton didn’t want to cuddle, I’d playfully pout and beg for kisses — now I respect his decision and move on.

We have a great, straightforward children’s book called No Means No. But people don’t always have to say no in order to mean no. I encourage the boys to notice social cues and watch people’s body language — does it seem like the baby likes it when you squeeze her? Her face looks upset. That means you need to stop right away.

My friend in San Francisco regularly tells her children, “It’s time to go. Do you want to ask Jenna if she’d like a hug or high five?” By phrasing it as a question, she lets both children decide if they want to embrace — or not. Those small linguistic changes can seem inconsequential, but think how much they might shift your perspective as you grow up into a pre-teen, teenager and adult — and when it comes to hooking up and sex. Now I’ve adopted her approach, too.

I try to never seem grossed out or shy about anything to do with the boys’ bodies or mine. (For example, they’ve asked about my tampons on the bathroom counter, and I tell them matter-of-factly what they’re for.) By learning the correct words for their body parts, they’re empowered and able to speak directly about them, and they know they can come to me with questions and get an honest answer. My mom had the same approach when we were growing up, and I always felt so comfortable talking to her about anything that was on my mind.

Joanna and Toby

How do you teach your kids about consent, sex and bodies? Do they ask questions? I’d love to hear. This article — 8 sex-positive things you can say to your kids that have nothing to do with sex — was also fantastic.

P.S. A children’s book about where babies come from, and who gets the best kisses?

  1. It’s practically impossible to scroll through social media or watch the news without seeing some report of sexual assault, but the focus of these stories always seems to be on what we should be doing better to help victims in the aftermath of their suffering. I love your awesome ways that will help me to teach my Kids about consent.

  2. It’s such a difficult and complex issue to discuss with young children, because you have to keep it simple and avoid age-inappropriate details, AND explain that their bodily autonomy doesn’t extend to things like not taking medication for an ear infection (or strep throat) because it tastes bad.

  3. Laurel Hammond says...

    Our sons childcare asks if the students if they would like to “share” a hug. I like the idea that a hug is shared- not given. “Give me a hug “ vs “would you like to share a hug?”

  4. All fantastic points. I would add the TedTalk from Al Vernacchio who suggests that we should talk about sex with the metaphor of pizza rather than baseball. Much more respectful and full of communication.

    • Robin says...

      Just watched this! So good, thank you!

  5. Lil Koyama says...

    I love this whole approach. I wish we had it when I was growing up, So empowering!

  6. Tips like this are very helpful especially if you’re a first time mom.

  7. Ilana says...

    Loved this post! But curious how to negotiate the “You’re the boss of your body” tenet when it comes to things that we know are in our kiddos’ best interest. For example, my toddler absolutely hates getting sunscreen put on before preschool everyday! We’ve tried to make it fun, but it’s always a big struggle. And I feel bad because it is her body and I hate that the process makes her uncomfortable, but also can’t have her getting sunburnt!

    • Lenny says...

      My preschooler did this too… Whenever something like this happens, I always think of what “carrot” I can offer (versus “stick”). She’s going through a big unicorn phase, so now as I put on her sunblock, I tell her special stories about unicorns and I only tell her these types of stories when it’s sunblock time. Maybe there’s something similar you can offer your kiddo?

    • Katherine says...

      We also have a horrible time with the sunscreen with my 2.5 boy, literally he acts as if I am torturing him (sigh). The rule now is if you want to go outside, to the beach, play with friends etc., you have to put on sunscreen first. He is a big fan of knowing “the plan.” I tell him – we get dressed, pack snacks, get our hats, put on shoes, and put on sunscreen before we get in car/stroller, etc. That has lessened the struggle… Good luck!

    • Natasha says...

      If my daughter is really resistant I something like that, I will usually give a choice and tell her we can do it when she is ready. So if it’s sunscreen, I would say, we can’t go to the pool until we have our sunscreen on. So we can stay home and play or put on our sunscreen and go – your choice…then if she is still not quite ready, I just wait for say let me know when you are ready and wait a few moments. Then when she is ready I will have her help put it on so we are doing it together. She does her cheeks or shoulders while I do the rest!

    • Robin says...

      We talk about my responsibility as the parent to make choices when it’s for their safety (e.g. seatbelt in the car, sunblock at the beach). But they are the bosses of their bodies on all other things, and when they are older they will get to make the safety choices too. Even drive the car themselves!

    • Robin says...

      Also I find the neutrogena stick style sunscreen that they can apply themselves is a winner. My kids love it!

    • MSLB says...

      My kids hated putting on sunscreen until we tried a “stick” variety. We called it a “sunscreen crayon” and suddenly they thought it was fun to “draw” on their faces. Plus they could apply it independently which gave them more control and Independence. Then we finished by having them “connect the dots” or “finger paint” to “fill in” the spots they may have missed (finishing the recommended application process).

  8. I don’t have children and I’m not planning on ever being a parent—but I feel compelled to comment and say how fantastic I think all your tips are!