Teaching Consent & Body Autonomy for Preschoolers

In today’s world, “consent” is a word that’s often used exclusively in the realm of people who are teenagers and adults. Because of its heavy use in the context of romantic relationships, parents probably don’t think of it as something that needs to be discussed with children. However, a foundational part of consent is the belief that a person is in charge of their own body and can tell others when they can and can’t touch or control them. That concept is something that children need to know as soon as they are old enough to understand. 

This article is here to help parents start that conversation with their preschooler so they can have more in-depth conversations about consent as their child gets older.   

What Is Consent?

Essentially, consent is about understanding and respecting a person’s boundaries when it comes to their bodies. Child Rescue Coalition defines it simply as, “permission, approval, or agreement.” 

So when we teach our children about consent, we are teaching them two things:

  • YOU have control over your body, and you can confidently communicate your boundaries to others. 
  • OTHERS have control over their bodies, and you need to ask them what their boundaries are before touching or controlling them. 

For adults and teens, it’s easy to ask them to imagine situations where consent would be necessary. But for preschoolers, their brains aren’t developed enough to come up with ideas on their own. When and how to ask for consent will only sink in the more you talk about it and the more you point out its importance.

Establishing a Foundation for Consent 

Now that we know what consent is, how can parents build a foundation for their children where they will look for and expect consent when they are older?

  • Don’t feel pressured to say “consent.” That’s a big, unclear word for a preschooler. Instead, talk about it in terms they can understand. “I’m in charge of my body” or “I have the power to say no” work just as well!
  • Teach and talk about bodily autonomy early on. Even when they are babies, tell your children that they are in control of their bodies and that no one is allowed to touch their private parts. They won’t understand when they are tiny, but they will one day. The more you talk about it in your home, the more it will sink its way into their behaviors. Along with obvious bad touching, tell your children they have the right to refuse any unwanted touch. That includes playful tickles, kisses, or hugs. If they don’t want them, they can say something and expect to be respected.
  • Remind them of the autonomy of others. Until your child is 2 or 3 years old, they won’t understand that they aren’t in charge of everything — that includes other people. Once they exit toddlerhood and start to understand language better, reinforce that other people are in charge of their bodies, too. Point out when other children or adults try to pull away from them or start to look sad when their autonomy is overridden. Those kinds of things are learned, but they need to be reinforced if a child is going to learn about consent.
  • Give them the right words. As uncomfortable as it may be for you, teach your children the correct names for body parts. There are two main reasons why that is important.
    • It reduces any body shame that comes with the private parts of a child’s body. Giving a body part a “code name” infers that the body part shouldn’t be talked about. Using the scientific terms for body parts (like penis or vagina) removes any stigmas of embarrassment or shame.
    • Using the real names for body parts help a child communicate to an adult if they are hurt or being abused. This is a heavy thing to think about, but it’s necessary. If a child is afraid or embarrassed to say what is hurting or if something was done to their body, it can keep them from getting the help they need. 
  • Remind them to bring in an adult. Empowering a child to create their own boundaries goes a long way, but there may be times where it won’t be enough. Remind your child that they can always come to you or a trusted adult when their boundaries aren’t respected. 

What Consent Can Look Like

These conversations can be taken in baby steps. As a parent, don’t feel like you need to start emphasizing each of these points all at once with the same intensity. Start with the topic that feels most approachable for you, and slowly add to the conversation over time. 

With the exception of the third point in the section above, these concepts are not limited to sexual consent. Think about these situations.

  • Your child gets pushed on the playground. Even if the shove was in good fun, if your child knows they are empowered to do something, they can tell their playmate to stop.
  • Your child has a shirt that’s itchy. Especially when they are too young to accurately communicate what they are feeling, giving them the autonomy to choose the clothes they wear helps them avoid an entire day of being irritable and miserable. 
  • Your child has a friend who gets overwhelmed at school. Instead of grabbing their arm and pulling them into a game, a child who understands consent will ask if they can hold the person’s hand or give them a hug instead. Unwanted physical contact might make the friend feel more overwhelmed or out of control. 

Every lesson learned as it relates to the autonomy your child has over their body and others have over their bodies is a lesson in consent. 

Modeling & Empowering 

Like almost every other parenting topic, you are the greatest example that your child has of what consent looks like. 

  • Model consent and healthy communication. Make sure your children see you setting your own personal boundaries and respecting other people’s. Especially with young children, point it out directly during or after the situation. And again, while it may be awkward, let your children hear you use anatomically correct words when it comes to the human body.
  • Respect your child’s autonomy. Be the best person at respecting your child’s boundaries. If you are playing and they ask you to stop tickling, hugging, or wrestling, then respect their wishes.
  • Have them respect your autonomy. And don’t forget, you have boundaries, too! Asking your child not to grab, push, or otherwise manipulate your body is part of training them to understand consent. Respecting your boundaries is a great way for them to practice.

Small Steps for a Better Future

For parents of preschoolers, talking about consent is much more about teaching your child to protect themselves and respect others. The basis of consent in any situation is mutual respect and a person feeling empowered to be in control of their own body. How that is applied is irrelevant at this point. For children, they should understand that they can establish their own boundaries and respect the boundaries of others. Future conversations and experiences will show them all the ways those principles can be applied. 

For more ways to teach consent or for help on ways to get started, be encouraged to reach out to your pediatrician, school counselor, or family therapist.