Talking to Kids About Consent

Article at a Glance

  • Consent as a concept can begin in early childhood, not just with dating.
  • Modeling is one technique for instilling concepts like body autonomy and consent.
  • Today, consent goes beyond the physical and into the digital world.

Consent can be an awkward topic to discuss. Most adults think of sexual activity when we hear the word consent, and no parent wants to think of their child as either an aggressor or a victim. However, consent goes far beyond sexual activity and applies to everyday situations like hugging. The great news is that opening up the conversation about ownership of our bodies from an early age makes the path toward those teenage consent conversations much smoother.

Here are some ways to introduce the concept of consent that don’t explicitly involve sexual activity. You can easily modify them to fit your child’s age and layer them into your family’s everyday life as early as the toddler years.

Normalize Consent in the Home

The best place for your children to learn about their right to say no to physical contact is in the home, with parental guidance and modeling. Age and maturity factor in how much children can comprehend abstract concepts, so start simple. Normalize asking your children for hugs, kisses, holding hands, and touching them in general—when safety is not a factor. Let them practice asking with you, too. The more experience they have asking for and giving consent, the easier it will become for them.

Respect Their “No”

If you ask your child for a hug or a kiss, allow them to tell you no. When you receive a no, accept it gracefully to give them practice giving and denying consent in a safe environment. It also lets them feel respected and heard. Avoid the temptation to hug or kiss them anyway, or repeatedly ask them for a hug or kiss until they give in.

By respecting a “no,” we teach children that their bodies belong to them, and they get to control who touches them (in any capacity) and who doesn’t. Practicing allows them to gain confidence in their decisions and in enforcing boundaries when needed.

If they deny consent for hugs or kisses, it’s ok to ask them for a less personal form of contact, such as “high fives” or fist bumps. Just make sure to respect their “no” if they don’t want any contact at all.

Defend Your Child’s Right to Say “No”

Avoid the temptation to make your child hug or kiss relatives to avoid hurting that relative’s feelings. This can give your child the message that other people have a right to their body, whether they like it or not.

Instead, if a relative insists on a hug or kiss, reiterate that your child has denied consent. Ask that other adults respect that. Aunt Sally can always ask for a less personal form of contact or request a hug or kiss at a later time. And allow your child to see you politely and calmly defend their choice—this reinforces the idea that their body belongs to them, and they have the right to control who can touch them and when.

Teach Them to Accept “No”

It’s just as important to teach your child how to accept a “no” as it is to teach them how to say it. Allow them to practice being denied consent with you. It may provide the perfect opportunity to talk about the appropriate reactions to being told “no” and what it means to have personal space. Learning to give and accept a “no” helps children begin to respect people’s boundaries and to see physical touch and affection as independent concepts.

Learn to Spot an “Enthusiastic Yes” vs. a “Lack of No”

Pay attention to your child’s demeanor when they’re asked for affection. Are they excited to give hugs and kisses, or do they look resigned? If you ask for a hug, and your child is anything less than happy to give it, reassure them that they don’t have to hug you just because you asked. Depending on the child’s age, have a conversation about bodily autonomy. Also, encourage your child to recognize when people don’t appear excited to give them hugs or kisses. Roleplay with your child to let them practice telling the difference between an enthusiastic yes and a lack of no. 

Consent Can Be Withdrawn

Teach your child that they have the right to change their mind, even if someone is already hugging or kissing them. There is no such thing as a “point of no return.” Model respecting the withdrawal of consent so your child learns to be confident in their decisions. This will also show them how they should respond to someone who has withdrawn their consent. And as difficult as it may be, it’s essential to teach kids that if someone keeps touching them after they have said “no,” it’s not ok, and they should tell you as soon as possible.

Digital Consent

In our connected society, we also must teach our children about respecting other people’s digital rights to privacy and space. An easy first step is teaching kids that they shouldn’t photograph or record a friend or family member without permission.

Explain (and model) that if someone tries to record us, we can always say no. The same rule goes for sharing photos online. If your child doesn’t want to star in a family Instagram post, they should be comfortable asking to opt-out and know that you’ll respect their wishes.

As a parent, you’re the safest person with whom your child can practice these lessons. The more comfortable kids become with giving and receiving consent, and with denying and being denied consent, the more likely they are to employ healthy boundaries as they mature. 

Reviewed on July 12, 2022 by: Joseph Hershkop, M.D.
Joseph Hershkop, M.D.
Board-certified Pediatrician

Dr. Hershkop is a former New Yorker who really enjoys working with children from birth to age three, and is passionate about asthma, ADHD care, and dermatology. Languages: English, Hebrew

Saratoga Springs Office
Full Bio

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