The holidays are a time for family, friends, and togetherness. This often means lots of hugs and kisses! But what do you do when grandma wants a hug and your little one isn't feeling affectionate? It's important to ensure your children are able to create and maintain healthy boundaries that help them feel safe in their bodies. As parents, friends, and family of these special kids, there are ways you can help!
It is a caregiver's responsibility to ensure their children are educated on the importance of consent and healthy boundaries. Teaching children to recognize and respect their own boundaries, as well as those of other people, can help them create and maintain a sense of safety in their bodies. This is especially important for younger children, as they may not yet be aware of what type of touch is appropriate or not. It is essential for parents to provide clear guidance and support to make sure their children understand the importance of consent in all aspects of life.
Isn't Consent an Adult Topic?
We often hear about consent in adult relationships, but consent isn't just for grown up moments behind closed doors. Consent and bodily autonomy are always important. Think about being on a busy train or in a store. If someone touches you on the shoulder or arm to get your attention and you don't know them, that can feel very stressful - for adults and kids!
Asking permission to touch your child instills in them that they deserve this respect just like an adult does. This is why teaching consent and bodily autonomy to kids is such an important part of their development.
How to Teach Consent to Kids
It’s important for parents to start talking to their children about consent at a young age, so they can learn the basics of what it means and how to respect it. Teaching kids the importance of consent can help foster healthy relationships and ensure that everyone’s boundaries are respected.
It also helps them with the boundaries of their friends and classmates too! Even if they want to hug, tickle, or wrestle, they are learning to respect that their friends don't always want to. Teaching about consent helps us all set healthy boundaries.
Parents can begin by introducing the concept of consent in simple terms and then provide examples of how it applies to everyday activities. You don't have to use those words exactly. Many parents teach the phrase "No means no" or "I'm in charge of my body" as ways to encourage their children to name their boundaries.
It is also essential to emphasize that all people, regardless of age or gender, have the right to say no to touch that isn't comfortable for them. With early education, parents can help create an environment where their kids understand the importance of consent and learn how to practice it in all interactions.
Start by asking before and during touch activities. Ask if you can pick your toddler up, or if they want to snuggle during their bedtime story. Teaching them from an early age that they get to say yes or no to physical contact is a huge lesson that will be built up over a lifetime. It builds trust with you as their caregiver, and also builds their trust and connection with their own bodies.
Consent can also be taught during physical games like tickling. The Intentional Nanny has a great blog about this topic and says:
Tickling can be really fun. In fact, it’s one of my own child’s most requested games. It goes like this: My child says, “Tickle me!” I say, “Ok!” And I tickle. My child says, “Stop!” or “All done!” or “That’s too much!” I say, “Ok!” And I stop. Immediately. I don’t ask, “Are you sure?” and keep tickling. I don’t ignore it and tickle harder. I stop. If I am tickling and tickling and my child doesn’t ask me to stop, I stop after a few moments anyway so he can catch his breath. Chances are in either situation, my child will ask me to tickle him again. And I do. And the moment he asks me to stop, I stop. Because I know that if he’s asking me to stop, he’s asking if he can trust me. Can I trust that I am still in control of this game? Can I trust that I am still in control of my body? Can I trust that if I say stop, my voice will be heard and respected? You can see how this conversation starts out with tickling and can keep our children safe as they grow. When someone doesn’t stop when our child say no, it should be a major red flag for them. We as parents and care providers are responsible for teaching children that this is how a body should be respected. Their own body and others. So when our children inevitably hit, pinch, kick, or poke us without our consent, our response of, “I won’t let you hit me,” or, “Please stop, I don’t like that,” will be another layer of the conversation around consent. I am not consenting to this behavior, I will not let you do that to me. We want our children to respect our bodies, and in return, we must offer the same respect to their bodies. If we push the limit with tickling, we are teaching that “no”/“all done”/“stop” doesn’t really mean no, and pushing the limit is an acceptable practice. And that seems like a dangerous message.
What About Being Polite?
Of course we want our children to be polite and not rude to guests, family members, and friends. But it's important to teach them how to be polite without touching. If your child doesn't want to hug or kiss, encourage them to say hello, or offer a different greeting like a high five or fist bump.
Most importantly, back them up if family members insist on a hug or kiss after your child says no. Your child is learning to stand firm in their boundaries, and you're their safe person.
At the end of the day, pressuring a child (or anyone, for that matter) into physical touch under the guise of politeness is very confusing as they figure out their boundaries and what's appropriate.
What About Hygiene and Safety?
Sometimes kids don't want to take a bath or wear a warm coat, but as their caregivers we have to help keep them clean and safe! When it comes to keeping their bodies clean, warm, and safe, it's still important to ask first. Sometimes offering your child a choice can help them feel a sense of autonomy in the decision.
Try asking questions like:
Even if it takes a few extra moments, allowing kids to get in and out of the car by themselves or put on their own shoes helps them develop motor skills and their bodily autonomy. (We know those moments can be agony, but it'll pay off when they're strong, independent kids later!)
This holiday season, you may want to have something prepared to say to relatives if you anticipate any issues. Let us know if you need any support making these plans or about how to help teach consent and boundaries to your kids. Our team is here to support you and your children!