Concepts of Consent – Teaching Permission

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It’s possible and arguably vital to teach our kids the basic concept of consent and permission in their early years development. Of course, this isn’t something that is related to sexual consent at this age but teaching them to respect boundaries and understand the importance of a “Yes” and a “No” will only help lay the foundation for a healthy grasp on the idea for the future, in adolescence and beyond. Everyone has the right to set a boundary, be it about their bodies, their possessions or their actions and  it’s a valuable lesson to teach and show our kids that these needed to be acknowledged and respected by both themselves and others.

At a basic level the argument for such a lesson is to help young children develop their understanding of empathy, for thinking beyond themselves and how they feel, to consider how their actions affect others. This is slow learning process and takes much needed, and not always easy to achieve, consistency and modelling from us as parents throughout their lives.

There are often very subtle moments when we don’t realise that we are actually ignoring their “No”. Forcing them to physically interact with people, a seemingly harmless “Go on give Granny a kiss goodbye.” or “Hug Charlie to say thank you” can sometimes be forced upon kids when they don’t want to do it out of an innocent need to be polite in the eyes of others. But by forcing them to physically interact when they don’t want to, no matter how well known the recipient of the interaction, we are showing them that their ‘no’ doesn’t matter or isn’t an acceptable answer. A logic they could go on to apply to both people they do know and people they don’t.  It’s easy to ignore their pleas for you to stop tickling their tummies as they fall about laughing but it’s important to stop and say “I hear you, you said stop, would you like me to carry on?” If they express a consistent reluctance to physically interact with one person in particular try to sit them down and have a discussion about why and validate their feelings about it. Explain the importance of the word “no”. Re-frame the explanation from “Don’t let a stranger touch you if you don’t want them to.” to “You don’t have to let anyone touch you if you don’t want them to.” Helping to give them power through their words and ownership of their bodies and their boundaries.

It works both ways too, they must respect others, even if they don’t like it when not given permission to do what they want. For example taking a toy off another child or touching them in some way, be it an affectionate hug or a hurried push past in the playground. Re-iterating to them that a simple “Is it OK if I…?” is the best course of action, especially with any physical interactions, but also that they must be prepared to perhaps not get the answer they want to hear and to live with that. Asking permission is a valuable lesson for our kids and hearing and acknowledging the response just as important too. Learning to ask permission will eventually create an extra step in their thought process before they act too instinctively. Getting them to slow down a bit and think about what they are doing and saying, and how they would feel if the situation were reversed.

Consent is a tricky idea for small children and it can take a long while for them to really develop those modes of thinking into the everyday. Kids are impulsive and don’t always notice that their actions are perhaps inappropriate, this makes the consistency and leading by example on the part of the parent even more important.  Navigating the tricky waters of learning to share for example, is a tough and often inconsistent scenario for small children. “Joe said you can’t play with his fire engine right now, and when you hit him it hurt him and made him feel sad, and we don’t want to make him feel sad or hurt. Hitting is not OK. So you need to wait until he says it is OK to play with the fire engine.” This doesn’t mean Joe will of course end up sharing but talking it out to our kids as simply and honestly as possible in these kinds of situations is the best way for them to develop these reasoning skills and understanding of the fundamentals of consent. Permission can be granted and taken away at anytime, consent isn’t indefinite and a “yes” isn’t blanket permission that can then be applied to all things, just as familiarity doesn’t equal consent either, so try to teach them the value of checking in every so often to make sure what they are doing is OK with the other person.

Ultimately what we are trying to get them to look for is an active enthusiastic “Yes”. If there isn’t clear consent than that equals a “No” and just because someone doesn’t say “no” clearly that does not equal a “yes” by default. Kids in particular may have a hard time vocalising a “no” response for many reasons. Perhaps fear of repercussions – they know they have to learn to share, or a fear of being left out or punished in some way. As parents it’s our tricky but important job to help create a set of rules around consent and permission and then make sure we not only model them ourselves but also apply to life both inside and outside the home. These conversations aren’t always easy but they are essential in the early years development of kids to set up a strong foundation and understanding of what it means to give and receive consent in adolescence and adulthood.

For more tips and helpful advice on talking to your kids about consent check out our Helpful Stuff pages and of course if you have anything to add about this interesting and vital topic and how we can best talk to our kids, at any age, about it please do get in touch or start a conversation below.

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