As a registered childminder and mum to two young kids, I know that keeping kids safe from a young age is crucial. You can actually begin to teach body consent to toddlers from around the age of 18 months. This helps normalise it, and it becomes just another thing they have learnt, like being kind. You can then expand on what you’ve taught them as they grow.
It doesn’t have to be scary and confusing. In fact, it shouldn’t be for little kids. This is just about setting the building blocks in place so that they know what is, and is not, allowed to happen to their bodies. You want them to know who to tell if someone upsets them or if something doesn’t feel right. It’s about helping your kids get into a consent mindset from a young age.
Chances are, you already do some of the things on this list with your toddler already. The other things are pretty easy to integrate into family life, and play, with your toddler. They may seem like small things but they all help build that consent mindset for your child. The goal is that your child will grow up confident. We want consent and healthy boundaries will just be second nature to them.
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Why is teaching consent important?
Consent is something that is becoming increasingly more important today. As a society, We are beginning to realise the horrifying effects of what happens when someone’s consent is over-ruled or when someone is not confident enough to refuse consent. There are more and more stories coming out of Hollywood just now, following on from the “me too” movement. As a parent, it can be so concerning to read all these stories.
As our kids become teenagers, they are exposed, through a number of different means, to the opinions of those who think over-ruling consent is clever, powerful or funny. There are a concerning number of video games, movies and YouTube videos that seem to promote lack of consent. This is often aimed at young men in particular. This is the culture we are dealing with as we raise our little kids. It is one of the reasons why it’s so important to teach a consent mindset right from the start.
Why is it important to teach your toddler about consent?
It may seem a bit early, for a toddler to be learning about consent, but unfortunately we live in a world where children are at risk from predators. Talking to them early on about consent is one easy way to help reduce the risk for them. It also allows them to speak up immediately if something happens. Sadly, statistically speaking, it is more likely that someone abusing a child is a relation or close family friend of that child. Therefore the boundaries our little people choose for their bodies need to apply to everyone. For example, if they don’t want a cuddle, even Granny cannot force a cuddle on them. Obviously when it comes to safety or personal care of a child, then their ‘no’ may need to be over-ruled. A simple explanation as to why should always be given here so they know that these are necessary exceptions.
It is so important to teach a consent mindset to our toddlers so that we can be part of the change in culture and stand up when something is not right. The younger they learn the basics of consent, the safer they are and the easier it is to apply them as they grow.
6 easy ways to teach body consent to toddlers
1. Stop when asked
It is so important that you, and other grown-ups, show them that ‘stop’ or ‘no’ means just that. You are teaching them that their words matter. They have the authority to decide what feels good for their body and what doesn’t. This goes for tickling games, or anything else that is affecting their body (aside from safety of course, and this exception should be explained to them each time). Sometimes a child may have wanted to play a game to begin with, or they are clearly enjoying being tickled. However, their ‘no’ or ‘stop’ should still be respected. If they then want to continue the game after, that is their choice. This is not only teaching your toddler that they have the right to be listened to, but also modelling how they should respond to other people’s boundaries.
Allow your toddler to choose if they want cuddles, kisses or any other physical affection from you or others. If you are worried about offending family members by not insisting on hugs and kisses, try offering an alternative. For example, you could say to your child, ‘It’s time to leave Granny’s house now. How do you want to say goodbye? Do you want to hug, kiss or wave’? If your family members are used to getting hugs and kisses, you may need to explain to them beforehand what you’re doing and why. It might help to share this post with them, so they understand the importance of what you’re teaching your little one.
2. You can begin to teach body consent to toddlers as you name their body parts
Teaching the correct, anatomical, names for body parts is more crucial than a lot of people realise. Experts believe that kids who know the proper names for their private parts are less likely to be targeted for abuse and more likely to speak up if they are. It is also more likely that adults will understand what is happening to them if do disclose abuse. There have sadly been stories where it took longer than necessary to realise a kid was being abused, due to adults misunderstanding them.
It may be uncomfortable at first, especially if you didn’t grow up using the proper names for your intimate body parts. Penis, vagina and vulva are not dirty words though. They are simply anatomically correct names for our body parts. We sing songs like ‘Head, shoulders, knees and toes’ to help toddlers learn the names of their body parts. Now, whilst I’m not suggesting throwing a new verse in there, I do feel it is so important to normalise talking about all their body parts.
When my friend first told me that she did this with her kids, I knew in my gut that I needed to be doing it too. However, at first it was so uncomfortable for me. To be honest, I still inwardly cringe when I say ‘vagina’ out loud! It is important though. I feel so proud that my kids can talk about their body parts comfortably, because I got over my own awkwardness. Their safety is more important.
There are lots of ways you can begin to talk about body parts with toddlers. Bath time and nappy changes are a great place to start as you can narrate what you are doing. ‘I’m drying your tummy, and now your bottom and penis and now your legs and tickly toes’. Potty training is another great opportunity to naturally teach them body names. Kids are always fascinated about where their poop or pee comes out of!
3. Teaching your child to listen to their bodies
I was chatting with my kids at dinner last night about the importance of learning to listen to our bodies. It made me realise that most adults have learnt to listen to their bodies needs when it comes to toileting and danger signals, however there are a lot of things that most of us are not so good at listening for.
I am not always good at listening to my body when it comes to eating. When I feel hungry, it’s ok, but I often don’t listen to it when it tells me it’s full. I keep eating. Growing up I learnt to finish what was on my plate to get a treat and I think it’s still slightly ingrained in me. I am often not good at listening to my body when it is tired, or needing a rest. Often I push myself, sometimes until I get ill and I’m forced to slow down. At 17, I acquired a stress ulcer and since then have been forced to listen to my body better. I am learning to listen to the warning signs and slow down and rest when my body needs it.
As a culture, I think we sometimes forget the importance of listening to our bodies. How we are raised can affect whether we listen to our bodies needs or whether we ignore them. For example, children who are raised to always obey adults and never say ‘no’ to an adult can be more likely to over-rule their feelings of right and wrong and their intuition. Our bodies can tell us when we feel uncomfortable, stressed or anxious. Teaching our toddlers to recognise these bodily sensations, listen to them, and ‘go with their gut’, helps keep them safe.
4. Modelling consent and healthy boundaries
Our little ones often learn more from watching us than listening to us. We have all seen that stressed out mum in the supermarket yelling, ‘stop shouting’ to her kids and we have raised our eyes at the irony, whilst probably acknowledging that we have all been there, right? Consent and healthy boundaries are no different. Kids generally grow up believing that what happens in their house is the norm. When they see one parent constantly over-ruling another ones boundaries they believe it’s normal. If a parent who has a boundary with her kids doesn’t maintain it, they grow up to believe that boundaries don’t mean a lot. We can help our kids so much by respecting our partner’s boundaries and by holding healthy boundaries ourselves and not allowing others to ‘walk all over us’.
This includes our children. Before I had kids, I remember my niece and nephew wanting to climb all over me. They loved playing this game with their uncle. He didn’t mind being a human climbing frame. I can become a bit overwhelmed by too much sensory stimulation and whilst I was more than happy to play catch or curl up to read a story together, I did not want to be climbed on. I explained this to my niece and nephew. On the odd occasion they tested the boundary, as kids do. I remined firm in my desire not to be climbed on and they learnt (pretty quickly, I might add), that we don’t climb on Auntie Lizzy. This has not only made life better for me, but it is also modelling healthy boundaries to my kids. They see these things and they copy what they see.
5. Keep communication open and honest and don’t keep secrets
This is one of the most important ones for all aspects of parenting. Making sure our kids know that they can come to us with anything and they won’t be in trouble for telling us things is so important. Kids who are close to their parents and tell them most things are less likely to be targeted. Unfortunately, it is the kids who are seen as having less high quality, trusting relationships with their caregivers that are often targeted. They are less protected.
In some families it is normal to keep secrets from one another. However, this is often how abusers get away with abusing children as they groom them and then convince them that this is their shared secret. We don’t keep secrets in our family. And this is the main reason why. We do surprises if someone’s birthday is coming up. We will encourage our kid’s to keep the present or activity a surprise. A surprise is different from a secret because it is a happy thing kept for a few days and then revealed.
Sometimes, other adults will say, without thinking, ‘don’t tell your mum’ when they give my kid an extra sweetie or something. If I catch them, I try to nip it in the bud. I’ll say a quick, ‘Oh we tell Mummy and Daddy everything in our family. An extra sweetie is fine’. Then later I will reinforce to my child that they will never be in trouble for telling Mummy and Daddy anything that someone says not to. I have also explained to other grown-ups the potential harm that this mindset of keeping little secrets can cause. They obviously do not mean it this way and are more than happy to try changing their language on that one. I have had to correct myself a few times when I say to keep something a secret from Daddy!
6. Teach body consent to toddlers through reading
My kid’s learn so much through books. I have always found that I remember information far better when I have learnt it in story form. There are so many great books out there on consent. Many of them are aimed at toddlers too. If you’re looking for book recommendations, then check out We Accept No and Don’t Hug Doug (He doesn’t like it), both from Amazon. The NSPCC Talk Pants resources are also a great place to start. They have advice, books and merchandise to help you talk to your little one about the issue of consent in an age appropriate way.
It’s so important to teach body consent to toddlers
It’s not going to hurt or scare them to learn about consent at this age. Not in the ways that we have described above. This is obviously just a starting point. It’s the building blocks of consent, for children from 18 months to 3 years. Consent is something you can teach more about as your child grows, using books, tv shows, and examples to help you. It is so important that they know about consent. Not only for themselves but also to advise friends and to spot early warning signs in relationships. When you teach body consent to toddlers it helps keep them safe, both now and in the future.