Teaching Consent & Body Autonomy
It’s typically between the ages of nine and twelve that our cute, cuddly little children, once so willing and wanting to spend time with us suddenly want independence.
A child in preadolescence is not the same person they were just a year or two ago. They have changed — physically, cognitively, emotionally and socially. They are developing new independence and may even want to see how far they can push limits!
What the child may not know is that they need you more than ever, because a strong parent-child relationship and educator-child relationship can help set the stage for a much less turbulent adolescence. This is why it is critical to have intentional conversations about consent and body autonomy with your child starting by age nine.
Start by giving your child the correct, scientific vocabulary to describe their body parts, including words like vulva, vagina, penis, testicles and anus.
Teaching the correct vocabulary for body parts from a young age helps to protect and support children as they develop and move through the world. It has been proven to:
Increase body confidence
Improve understanding of consent
Increase knowledge of health and wellness
Improve communication skills with trusted adults
Why is this important?
Using scientific vocabulary helps protect children from harm and abuse. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, children who understand the correct words for their body parts are less likely to become victims of child sexual abuse and more likely to tell a trusted adult if they have been harmed.
Beyond violence prevention, teaching the correct vocabulary for body parts helps children communicate when they are sick, hurting or experiencing gender dysphoria and lays the foundation for future talks about gender, sexuality and sexual health.
What if your body doesn’t look like everyone else’s?
Part of teaching vocabulary and body autonomy is talking about all different body types, even ones that don’t fit in the male/ female binary.
Intersex refers to a person born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the boxes of “female” or “male.” This can include external body parts, like a vulva and a penis, or internal parts, like testes and ovaries or even your chromosomes. There is a big misconception that intersex people are extremely rare, but 1-2 in every 100 people are intersex - which is tens of millions of people!
Just like all bodies, intersex people exist on a spectrum, both in their physical attributes and their identities. Talking about intersex people and identities is a great way to normalize bodies and introduce your child to the idea that everyone is different and valuable.
Apply the Vocabulary
Once you have set the foundation for conversation about consent and body autonomy, it's time to start talking!
Here are seven areas of conversation that will protect your child and give them the skills and confidence to protect themselves.
Talk About Gender Stereotypes
Sometimes kids are taught that boys are expected to pursue sexual relationships with girls and that girls need to play hard to get.
These kinds of stereotypes can be harmful and aren’t very effective in preventing violence.
Rather than relying on external pressures, talk to your child about what they want. This will also help them understand and respect what others want.
Teach bodily autonomy
This is the idea that an individual has control over what happens to their body, including who gets to touch it.
Helping children identify their own boundaries, and how to respect those of others, is vital to successful development.
A child who knows they are in control of their body is less likely to fall victim to sexual abuse, sexual assault and intimate partner violence. They are also more likely to disclose abusive events should they happen to them.
As educators, one of the biggest things we see people struggle to understand is consent. Because so many of us only learned consent in regards to sex, it feels uncomfortable and scary but really - consent is truly about asking, listening and respecting.
We ask for consent in our daily lives without even realizing it, whether it’s asking to pet someone’s dog, asking what someone would like to order for takeout, borrowing toys or giving hugs.
Normalize consent in all of the small moments and name it for what it is: good communication.
Express Physical Boundaries
A vital part of teaching bodily autonomy is educating friends and family about boundaries, too.
This way grandma doesn’t get offended when she doesn’t get a kiss. She should know it’s not required that her grandchildren hug and kiss her or sit on her lap. As an adult, you can encourage alternatives.
A great option for practicing consent at family gatherings is giving children a choice of how to say goodbye to grandma: maybe a hug or a high five.
Teach the Importance of Reporting
Teach children that if someone violates their bodily autonomy, crosses a boundary or touches them inappropriately, it isn’t their fault.
But it’s vital they tell an adult. Not all children have the vocabulary to talk about what happened. If your child has been taught correct body terminology, they will have an easier time reporting.
They are also less likely to feel shame and embarrassment over what happened to them, because they know it’s their right to have boundaries.
Unlearn Your Own Sex Education
For some, teaching your child about consent is a way of reckoning with your own childhood experiences, which can be difficult and confusing.
As your child gets older, speak to them openly about how your understanding of consent has changed. Sometimes learning alongside your child can be a powerful teaching tool.
Remember, you don’t have to be an expert all the time! You just need to try.
Just like kindness, respect and work-ethic, the best way to learn consent is in hundreds of small moments as they grow up.
Seize Everyday Opportunities
A sit-down lecture on consent might not be the most engaging way to help children understand how to navigate consent. Kids will often tune out or feel too embarrassed to really absorb a sex talk.
Talking about consent as communication in age appropriate ways is a much more effective way to protect them. Point out ways that shows and television shows model healthy consent when you see a good example.
On the other hand, while television shows and movies often do not depict healthy consent, use them to your advantage to talk about misconceptions of consent and the importance of not being influenced by media we consume.