How to teach kids about consent

Most parents want their children to grow up with a good understanding of healthy boundaries in relationships.

But waiting till the pre-teen "sex talk" to start teaching young people about consent is far from ideal.

Sexual consent is the seeking and giving of permission for a sex act. It must be a clear communication of "yes, I want this" and not merely the absence of "no".

The good news is you can start teaching kids about consent from a very young age, without confronting discussions about rape or sexual violation.

Parents can model and talk about the foundation skills for learning about consent from as early as the toddler years, and then slowly build the ideas as the child develops.

Here are some possibilities for parents to consider:

My body, my rules

Teach kids that no one can touch them unless they say it's OK.

Teach them names for all their body parts and avoid euphemisms like "rude bits".

As they get older and more independent with toileting and bathing, ask them before helping with wiping or washing their bottom and penis or vagina.

You could say something like: "Do you need help wiping your bottom?"

But respecting their response in these situations will be important, so this is an approach best adopted after they develop some washing or wiping skills themselves.

If they do say no, you can then supervise the job without touching.

I keep my hands to myself

It's normal for some young toddlers to want to hug and kiss strangers. But as a child develops, parents can start teaching their child that avoiding overt physical contact with people they don't know may be appropriate.

These basic skills are typically mastered by the time a child is in preschool and are one of the foundations to understanding boundaries and consent.

Hugging and kissing is a choice both people make

With people they do know, make kids aware they don't have to hug and kiss every time. They can choose to do it only when they want to.

Model this by sometimes asking them yourself, "can I have a kiss?", and don't force them to kiss friends and family members when it's clear they would rather not.

Instead, you can insist on them being polite with a handshake or a high-five, eye contact and just saying "hello".

Similarly, teach them to ask their friends before hugging and kissing them: "Ask Gemma if she wants to hug good-bye. Maybe she doesn't want to."

Good friends play games that both friends want to play

When supervising your child's play dates, you may hear that one child is insisting on playing a particular game that the other child doesn't want to play. Help them sort out a game they both agree to because that's what good friends do.

You could say something like:

"It's not OK to make our friends play games they don't like. If Caleb doesn't want to play that game, that's his choice. Why don't you play a different game?"

Lollies are not the way to make people do things they don't want to

One parenting strategy to approach with care is bribing your child with a direct reward to do tasks they feel reluctant about.

While it may seem an effective technique, there's a risk you will "over-model" it, and your child may adopt the habit themselves with phrases like: "If you play my game, then I'll give you some of my lollies".

This may lead them to believe it's acceptable to induce someone do something they don't want to.

You could consider suggesting a child does a task because this "is one of our family's rules" instead.

If you must rely on rewards, consider using an in-direct system such as stickers or ticks on a chart that must accumulate before they amount to a treat of some kind.

So when a child is protesting about having a bath, you remind them of the rule first — "you have to bath everyday, that's the rule" — rather than saying a bowl of ice-cream is waiting for them if they agree to a bath.

You can still reward good behaviour, but it's for following the rules, not for doing a specific task.

Too late to start?

Parents may not feel like experts, but they can certainly help their children know what figuring out consent is like in the real world.

It's helpful if you're open to an ongoing conversation about it, because it takes more than a "one-off" lesson in a school sex education class to understand what consent is and the skills needed to negotiate it.

But if you're a parent of an older child and you're worried you've "missed the boat" to teach your child about consent, be reassured it's never too late.

Conversations about consent during middle childhood and the teenage years are still very valuable because by this stage, children can discuss hypothetical situations and reflect on events they have experienced or witnessed.

Older children might also be more capable of understanding that consent is not a "once only" discussion, but rather an ongoing agreement that can be changed at any stage.

'Take home' messages

Here are some final points to consider:

  • It can be good to talk about feelings, comfort levels and recognising the signs of fear versus excitement. Explain that before being ready to consent to sex, a young person needs to be able to figure out how they feel and what they want themselves. They then need to be able to figure out what the other person wants and feels comfortable with. Scenes from movies and shows may be good opportunities that spark discussion about feelings and consent.
  • When talking to your kids about other topics like drugs and alcohol, include information about how hard it is to decide what you feel like doing with someone if you're not sober. Most parents want their kids' first sexual experiences to be sober and memorable (in a good way) and this is more likely when they have a good understanding of what that means beforehand.
  • Whilst it can seem rather awkward talk to your kids about pleasure, this can help them understand the positives of sex in an environment where there are lots of messages about the negatives. Talk to your kids about love, relationships and the fact most men and women have sex for pleasure.
  • Exposure to pornography is unfortunate for children and their families but it's something we need to talk about and not ignore if we want young people to understand what consent really is. The It's Time We Talked website provides support for young people, parents, schools, government and the community sector to understand and address the influence of pornography
  • Talk to other parents. Yes, raising a child who understands consent is tricky, but so was nappy rash, sleeplessness and temper tantrums. Your existing parent network can be a good place to have some conversations and find support. Look for resources online that you find helpful. There are videos such as Tea and Consent produced by Thames Valley police that can be a good conversation starter with your child. And websites such as Sex and Ethics haves many links to books and programs you might find useful.