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Talking to Children About Consent and Body Sovereignty: Getting Started

muslim boy hugging his mother
Talking about consent can be confusing, but it doesn't have to be! Starting with trust and understanding is key.
Talking about consent can be challenging for parents. Fortunately, there are many resources from expert social workers and sex educators for caregivers. Here are three tips to get started talking about body sovereignty, boundaries and freedom of choice.
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“Children are some of the most powerless in our culture. We just really need to be mindful of how we use that power we have with children in order to create really empowered, and brave, and awesome kids who love themselves.”
Isy Ibraham-Raveson

As parents of young children, most will agree that children deserve to be listened to and respected. But it’s equally as important to recognize that children should have full control of their bodies. Consent is about asking for permission, giving choices, and respecting body boundaries. Navigating consent can be a challenge for parents (like myself) who didn’t feel liberated to speak up when they felt uncomfortable giving a hug or sitting on someone’s lap.

Fortunately, there are many resources and helpful suggestions from expert social workers and sex educators for parents and educators as they empower children through freedom of choice about touch or actions. Here are three tips to get started:

Start Young

When my daughter was an infant, I tried my best to be intentional in what I was doing so she knew what to expect. For example, prior to changing her diaper, I would say, “Mommy has to change your diaper or you will get a rash.” I also put my hands out so she could see them before putting lotion on her body. If she didn’t want to be touched at that moment and began to cry or act fussy, I chose to stop putting on the lotion and try again later.

Once she was a little over a year old, we began reading books like “C is for Consent” written by Eleanor Morrison and illustrated by Faye Orlove and “Let's Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent and Respect” written by Jayneen Sanders and illustrated by Sarah Jennings. I also created a communication chart and brought it with us to family and friends’ homes to support my daughter in choosing her communication preference. The chart includes visuals of children giving hugs, high-fives, kisses and waves, along with the simple sentence frame: I can say hello by _____. She would point to her choice to support grown-ups and peers in knowing how she wanted to say hello. Having something tangible for her supported me, and other grown-ups, in understanding her needs.

Empower Through Accurate Language

According to sex educator Lydia M. Bowers in an interview with HuffPost, “When we avoid saying words, we instill a sense of shame, of something to be avoided or hidden.” Books like “Body Safety Education: A parents' guide to protecting kids from sexual abuse” by Jayneen Sanders provide a framework and supplemental resources to support parents in discussing everything from body boundaries to body parts. It also explores the importance of shifting from “secrets” to “surprises” because secrets are one of the main tools used by sexual predators to silence and control children. Another book by Jayneen Sanders that’s worth checking out from the library is “ABC of Body Safety and Consent.” Through 26 “key” letters, children learn crucial body safety and consent skills. There is also a helpful discussion question guide geared towards children ages 4 to10 years old.

Create a Home Where Your Child Feels Heard

Cartoon of a mom tiger holding a baby tiger in her arms as they look at each other.
Mom Tiger knows how important it is that kids feel heard and understood. | PBS KIDS

When we create homes where our children are able to openly discuss their feelings, identify and sit with difficult emotions and feel liberated to explore tough topics, we make space for them to share their experiences. Resources like Daniel Tiger’s Life’s Little Lessons and Sesame Street in Communities: Exploring Emotions can support children (and grown-ups) in expressing and understanding their emotions.

Continue learning how to support your child with these resources:

What is Consent?

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