According to our poll on DomesticShelters.org, just under 60 percent of the respondents said they already did or planned to talk to their kids about boundaries and consent before the age of 4. As someone with a 3-year-old and 5-year-old, I can attest to the challenges of getting little ones to listen to anything that doesn’t have to do with snacks or the movie Frozen, so a serious talk like this might seem tricky in theory.
Yet, it’s doable. Experts say that preventing dating violence, domestic abuse and sexual assault means starting the conversation young. Really young. The earlier parents and caregivers can reinforce in little minds that their bodies are their own, no one can touch them without consent, and that healthy relationships involve respect and kindness, the better chance we have of raising a generation that doesn’t feel entitled to control others.
So, how do you do it? I’ve found it doesn’t start with a big talk. It starts with little talks here and there, from the moment they can understand you.
Your Baby Gets It
Jayneen Sanders is an early education teacher in Australia, a mom and the author of Let’s Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent & Respect, a book targeted to kids as young as 4. She agrees the conversation about consent can start “as soon as babies are born.”
“When they are little babies we can’t ask their permission, but we can respect the child by explaining what we are doing, e.g. ‘I’m just going to change your nappy so you can stay clean.’ As they get older, we can say things such as, ‘Can you please open your mouth so I can help you clean your teeth?’” says Sanders.
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It’s also important to use the right terms for body parts—this not only helps kids learn to properly identify their body parts as they grow up and be able to talk about them clearly, but it also shows there’s nothing to be ashamed about referring to them correctly. Example: It’s a vulva, not your “downstairs” or “lady bits.”
In her own experience, Sanders says this works. “My three daughters are in their 20s now, but we began talking about and modeling body boundaries and consent from a very early age—birth onwards but with more specific intent around 18 months.”
As a result, she says her daughters learned how to assert themselves as soon as they could vocalize their wishes, “and I can tell you they were very assertive tweens, teenagers and are now assertive adults,” says Sanders.
Show Them How to Speak Up
Sanders also says it’s important to make children feel in control of their bodies during doctor visits, a time when it’s common to feel vulnerable. Health professionals should ask permission before examining a child— “Can I touch your sore knee?” If they don’t ask, says Sanders, a child or adult can certainly speak up: “You didn’t ask to do that. We respect personal boundaries in this family; would you mind asking next time?” Modeling setting boundaries for your child is a great way to show them it’s OK to be their own advocate.
Teach Them How to Respect Boundaries
Just as important as learning to set boundaries is learning how to respect others’ boundaries. Kids should learn how to ask permission if they want to touch someone else, even a family member. Examples: “Do you need a hug?” “Can I hold your hand?” “Do you want me to help you take off your shoes?” If someone says “No,” that answer should be respected and a child should learn how to back away until that person is ready to be touched.
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Similarly, it’s important to let children figure out how to resolve conflict with siblings. Experts advise not to take sides when siblings fight but rather act as a mediator and let each child have a chance to talk. This helps children learn how to establish their own boundaries and also stand up for themselves.
Picture Books Can Help
“They help parents and carers find the words when they otherwise may not know where to begin.”
Check out our book club selection, Girl Up to help teach your older kids (tween and up) about boundaries and consent. Here are two other books DomesticShelters.org recommends to talk about violence specifically with young children, and here are five young adult novels that can start conversations about dating violence with teens.
Two Other Talks to Schedule
Besides boundaries and consent, we asked Sanders what other important topics she feels parents should be talking with their kids about early on. Her answers: Gender equality and empathy.
“I think gender stereotyping can be very dangerous. We know domestic and family violence stems from one gender—usually male—believing they are more powerful than another. We all need to treat kids as simply kids; gender being irrelevant. By labeling girls as one thing and boys as another we are only reinforcing gender roles that are unhelpful to an equal and fair society. And, importantly, we are restricting both genders’ future potential.
She also thinks the world could benefit from a little more empathy.
“Compassion and kindness are often lacking from our political leaders ... we need to encourage our kids to care for one another, their communities, the planet and to show empathy and kindness to all.”
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