my body, my choice

7 ways to introduce consent to young children

image: sun shining through red maple leaves

image: sun shining through red maple leaves

If you haven't been living under a rock for the past few months, you'll be aware of a spate of sexual harassment and assault allegations made against powerful men in Hollywood, in academia, in government, and anywhere else the patriarchy allows male abusers to flourish.  Much of the media focus has been on taking down these individuals one at a time, and while of course that's important, this will continue to happen as long as we accept the underlying misogyny of our society.  

It may seem like preschool is far too young to teach children about graphic topics like sexual abuse, but when we introduce bodily autonomy and consent to very young children of all genders, it lays the groundwork for them to respect themselves and others in adulthood as well. Here are 7 phrases to teach consent every day.

1. "Your body, your choice"

This is it in a nutshell.  Whenever possible, empower children to make choices about their own bodies - who's allowed to touch it and when, how they move it, what they wear, whether they eat.

2. "May I give you a hug?"

It has to be okay if the answer is no, even if it hurts Grandma's feelings.  Allow kids to choose whether they want to give a hug, a high five, or a wave.

3. "I won't let you hurt me"

Sometimes adults feel it's part of childrearing to have children hit, push, tackle, climb and pinch them, and since they can't do that much damage, it's okay.  But by modeling healthy boundaries, you're setting an example for when your child might be hurt by someone else, as well as helping an out-of-control kid regain calm.

4. "You can say..."

When you correct a child's behavior it's always helpful to give them a positive alternative of what you'd like them to do instead.  Often toddlers and even preschoolers lash out violently when they lack the language to express themselves.  Try "I won't let you hit me, you can say 'I'm mad' instead" or "You can tell him 'stop!' or 'no!'"

5. "No means no"

When a child does successfully use their words, it's up to us as adults to make sure that their words are respected.  That may mean physically removing the aggressor or redirecting the play. 

6. "Look at (child's) face, do they look happy?  Sad?  Scared?"

Learning social cues is probably the most essential preschool skills, and one that may be even more challenging for children on the spectrum or with other special needs.  When you're intervening in a physical conflict between children, this and #7 are great ways to promote communication and connection.

7. "Is this game fun for you?"

Many schools misguidedly react to physical altercations by banning roughhousing, tag, or cancelling recess altogether.  Rough physical play is essential gross motor practice and teaches social skills in its own way, but when it stops being fun for one of the participants, the adult can always stop the play and empower the child to say no.  You might be surprised, sometimes the answer is yes and the "victim" is actually playacting as part of the game!