Teaching Consent... Without Sex



Date of Publication
June, 2015

This tip is about consent-now I know you might be thinking, again? But hear me out.

Yes, consent is a fairly common topic area in sexual assault prevention, and there are good reasons for that. Far too often though we come up with reasons why we CANNOT teach consent. Things like the kids I'm working with are too young for that, or the school doesn't let us talk about sex. And this is why this Tip is about consent... without sex.

It's About So Much More

A recent article posted on Reality Check called "We Can Teach Kids About Consent Without Bringing Sex Into The Conversation" articulates the WHY and HOW of teaching consent as part of daily life:

Though we often think about consent in terms of sexual assault, the truth is that it is an essential aspect of all interpersonal relationships. People have the right to set boundaries about their bodies, their possessions, and their actions, and we need to respect those boundaries. By framing consent in this way for kids, we're laying the groundwork they will need to navigate situations in the future, including and beyond sexual interactions.

This is a great article for parents and caregivers as it normalizes a lot of the daily life challenges of maintaining family rules or safety AND valuing kid's consent. In reality, kids may not have control over their bodies in every single instance-such as receiving medical treatment when sick. The author goes on to share more about these situations:

Those situations-in which I have to override our consent for her own good-make me even more committed to abiding by her wishes when I can, because I want her to know that in most situations her body is hers and she sets the limits. Often when she complains, for example, I'm trying to get the knots out of her hair. I don't want to stop; I want to keep brushing and send her to school without a rat's nest hidden in a ponytail for once. But I stop and point out that I did so because it's her hair and she asked me to. Then I promise to be gentler and ask for permission to start again (and when she inevitably doesn't give it to me, I reach for the ponytail holder and move on).

These conversations aren't only for parents and caregivers. Any trusted adult, whether a teacher, coach, community leader, or family friend, can reinforce the value of children's wishes being respected. Developing healthy skills around giving and receiving consent is an essential building block. And just as with any skill, practice makes perfect, so why not practice on asking to borrow a pen in class or to hug a relative long before negotiating sex?

Your Consent Doesn't Matter...?

The short video clip (10 minutes) called "4 Ways Parents Teach Kids Consent Doesn't Matter" by Parenting Gently is a great resource to share with parents and caregivers!

The clip provides tangible examples of ways in which we not only take power away from kids but also teach them their consent does not matter. It also points out that building a strong foundation of consent with kids is essential if we want them to practice healthy sexual consent when they grow up.

In the clip she talks about ways adults teach consent doesn't matter, here we've flipped them to offer quick tips on how adults can teach that consent DOES matter in every day life:

  1. Stopping when kids says they don't want to be tickled or touched anymore.
  2. Respecting kid's instincts and feelings.
    • Sometimes if we think it isn't logical or reasonable for kids to express feeling cold/tired/hungry/etc. we will tell them that is not true. You can help validate their instincts by asking an open ended question to clarify, offering a compromise, or suggesting an alternative rather than shutting them down.
  3. Allowing kids to set their own boundaries about greeting friends and family members.
    • Resisting the natural urge to insist your kid hug or kiss someone can be a challenge given cultural or societal norms of respect and politeness, yet is an important building block of affirmative consent.
  4. It's equally important for everyone to have a voice and agency. Kids are valuable and deserve to have power too.
    • We know violence is hugely connected to perceived value and access to power. By treating kids, and modeling this with other adults too, as they are important and their needs matter we can help dismantle the power differentials that contribute to sexual violence.

Another important consent lesson that adults can teach kids and teens is how to hear and respect another person's "NO". Too often in prevention we fall into a pattern of telling (and maybe teaching) people, especially girls and women, to say "NO" assertively. While this is not a bad skill to have, it dilutes the message around consent we need to teach — responsibility lies with those that disregard and violate (or just don't even ask for) consent.

Consent Cartoon to Share

It's important we teach consent in a variety of formats: through conversation, modeling good consent, and also in sharing media. You can let them watch this short (under 3 minutes) animated video clip "Consent for Kids" created by a parent.

The concept for the video sprouted from a situation Brian’s seven-year-old daughter, Lola (who also narrates the video), went through at school. A classmate had been bothering her, giving her unwanted attention and even kissing her when the teacher wasn’t looking. Brian asked her daughter if she had told the classmate “no” or if she had told her teacher. Lola responded with an answer that’s all too familiar: “I was too embarrassed. I am so upset, I just want this day to be over.” Sadly, this kind of guilt is deeply rooted in rape culture and often falls on the shoulders of girls and women. 

This is an excellent video to share with children. Not only does it present the concepts in a fun and easy to understand way, it also aligns with the best practice guidance on protecting kids from sexual abuse. It puts the main focus on children's rights over their bodies and that what is most important about consent is asking for it (not only about saying no).