Article Summary By: Sarah Zucker, Psy.D.

San Diego Parenting Tips

This article was written as a brief summary of a video posted on youtube by Parenting Gently. For more information, please see the 4 Ways Parents Teach Kids that Consent Doesn’t Matter video clip on youtube.

Teaching children consent and boundaries is a very important part of parenting. We want children to know that no means no and that they should not do anything that deep down does not feel right. It is what we teach them as children that forms the foundation for them asserting themselves and trusting their instincts as teens and adults. Having firm boundaries and being assertive can go a long way if your teen finds herself in an uncomfortable or risky situation. However, there are certain things we may unknowingly do as parents which undermine the value of consent. It can be confusing for children to hear us say one thing but act out another. Everyone parents differently and you know what works best for you and your child, but consider not doing these three things as you teach your children about their own agency.

1) Not Listening To “No” or “Stop.” Playing silly games with our kids is one of the most fun ways to connect with them when they’re little. Tickling, raspberries, playfully jumping out at them… all of these can be great fun. However, the moment your child says “no” or “stop” or tells you that they don’t like something, stop. Even if they are saying it while laughing and joking, stop for a moment, let them catch their breath, and let them indicate if they’d like you to keep going. You can even ask if they want you to continue. (Let’s be honest, usually they’ll let you know by lifting up their shirt so you can see their belly or by signaling clearly for more.) But this is a great way to show them that you care about what they’re saying and that you will stop if they are uncomfortable. It also teaches them that if anyone says “no” to them, they need to listen and respect the boundaries of others.

2) Forcing them to kiss and hug. We adamantly teach our kids not to talk to strangers, but the minute Uncle Jim walks in (who they met once at 6 months old and do not remember at all, naturally), they are instructed to give him a hug and kiss. This totally contradicts what we teach our kids! This can also be frightening for little ones. We would never want to be forced to make close contact with someone we didn’t know or didn’t like, so why would we want to force this on our children? We wouldn’t. It’s normal that we want our kids to be seen as polite because this reflects on us as parents, but instead of demanding affection from our children, we can ask them, “Do you want to hug Uncle Jim or would you rather wave hi or shake his hand?” This teaches children that they have a choice, and they do not ever have to intimately touch somebody, elder or not, if they’re not comfortable. They still must be polite and acknowledge them, but on less intrusive terms. This also helps your child to feel more comfortable sharing with you if they are ever touched inappropriately, which is critical to catching and stopping sexual abuse. They know that you would never condone something like inappropriate touching just because an adult or authority figure says it’s OK. They learn that nobody, no matter who they are, has the right to touch them in a way that doesn’t feel right or that violates their space.

3) Don’t dismiss their feelings. It’s easy to hastily dismiss your child’s statements when you’re almost certain that they aren’t true. Some examples are: “I’m cold” (when it’s 100 degrees outside), “I’m hungry” (after they just scarfed down all of the food in your pantry), or “I’m not tired!” (after they’ve been up for twelve hours straight with no nap and are exhibiting all of the their classic exhausted behaviors). You know your child, and you typically know how they’re feeling, but don’t outright dismiss what they’re saying. If we just flat out contradict them by saying they don’t feel a certain way when they’ve just told us that they do, they learn not to trust their instincts. Instincts are so important later on, and we want our little ones to trust their internal cues. If you know they likely aren’t cold because it is really hot, just acknowledge it in some way so you can understand what might really be bothering them. My friend, whose child always claims to be hungry, typically responds, “Why don’t you let your food settle for a little while before you eat something else.” This works well because the little guy usually forgets he’s hungry within two minutes, but he was also acknowledged at the same time. You don’t have to act on your child’s every whim, but you don’t have to flat out dismiss him either. This also applies when they say things like, “I don’t like Grandpa.” Our usual reaction is to get defensive and say “Yes you do! Don’t ever say that about Grandpa.” But if they say something like this, it’s better to ask an open-ended question and explore why it’s being said instead of telling them they don’t know how they feel.

These are just a few ways to teach your children about consent, trusting their instincts, maintaining healthy boundaries, and asserting themselves with confidence. Feeling like your falling short is built into parenting, so just do the best that you can. If you need some help, don’t be afraid to schedule a consultation with a psychologist or mental health professional. We frequently do consultations with parents who just have a few questions or who want to formulate a game plan. How do you teach your child about consent?

Special thanks to Parenting Gently for these amazing parenting tips.