Seven ways to encourage consent in young children

Yesterday my husband Sam and I shared a high five over our parenting. The prompt? Frida had been in the garden, wearing just shorts and wellies. Sam asked her if she wanted to wear a t-shirt to keep warm and she proudly replied “No! My body my choice.” 

We are so pleased to be raising a daughter who has a strong feeling of bodily autonomy and her own power of consent.  

If I told you an adult was obedient, compliant, and carried out orders even if they didn’t believe in them or understand them, what would you think ? I would imagine you would not think very highly of them. Yet these same qualities are valued in children – children who are then expected to grow into adults who are not afraid to speak up for what they believe in and stand up for themselves. 

I want to raise a child who feels that she has a voice, and that her voice is listened to. Tied to this is the work of teaching and encouraging consent and bodily autonomy. Not just important for girls (but oh so important for girls!) raising a child who understands that they are the boss of their own body is crucial. 

SEVEN WAYS TO ENCOURAGE CONSENT AND BODILY AUTONOMY IN CHILDREN 

Respect your child when they don’t want hugs and kisses…

… and stick up for them in front of relatives and friends, too. Teaching your child that their no means no when it comes to their body is a huge deal! If we don’t teach them this as children how can we expect them to know it as teens or adults. I want my daughter to know that she can always say no to unwanted affection, even if it comes from a place of love, and that her no should always be respected. 

At times I do have to remind myself that just because I grew her and fed her it doesn’t mean that her body is mine! If Frida doesn’t want to hug or kiss goodbye we suggest she might want to blow a kiss instead, which she always does. Her body, her choice! 

Talk to your child about what you are doing to them 

I think this is so important, but in my experience often overlooked. This might look like telling your child you are about to pick them up, or change their nappy, or wipe their face, or put them in the sling. It might be about explaining they are going to have a vaccine which will hurt but will stop them getting poorly in the long run, or that you’re going to need to put them in the car seat because otherwise the car isn’t a safe place to be. 

Think about how cross you would feel if someone much bigger than you just picked you up with no warning whilst you were in the middle of doing something and moved you! Extending your baby or child the same courtesy you would extend to an adult costs nothing but shows your child you respect them and their body. Their body, their choice – and when they can’t choose, they are respected and actions are taken in their best interest. 

Don’t try to control your child’s eating habits 

Food is such an emotive issue, isn’t it? I know that I often feel disappointed if Frida doesn’t eat much, and feel pleased when she eats a “good meal”. But… what the heck? Isn’t that so odd? Obviously I am happy when my family enjoy the food I cook, but I would never feel the same emotions if my husband decided he wasn’t very hungry and had a small meal, or ate a lot because he was ravenous.

I think food is a key area where we can teach children from a very young age – from day one, in fact – that they are the boss of their bodies. We can trust them to eat when they are hungry, and to stop when they are full. We can (breast or bottle) feed on demand, and let ourselves be guided by our children for weaning. We can offer foods they like alongside new foods, and not feel like failures if our children eat toast or porridge before bed because they didn’t enjoy or want their suppers. We can trust them to feed themselves – even if it’s messy! – and we can listen if they tell us they are still hungry even if they’ve just eaten a banana and two bowls of porridge.

I know that I would hate it if someone else controlled what I ate, so I will not control what Frida eats (even if this feels really hard at times). This includes asking her to help decide what we eat at mealtimes, just like I sometimes ask my husband what he wants and sometimes I decide. Everyone will have different views on food, but I am very pro children having access to healthy snacks and drinks so they can manage their own bodily needs throughout the day. Their body, their choice of what goes in it! 

Model your own power of consent

For me personally I have found this important whilst breastfeeding. At 27 months Frida is still breastfeeding (although not very often) and although when she was a baby I breastfed totally on demand, as she got older I found it important to say no if I really didn’t feel like it! I would explain that mummy was feeling a bit tired / dehydrated / poorly / whatever, and tell her that although I understand she wants milk she can’t right now because I don’t want to. 

I am sure people will have different views on this but for me it’s been a wonderful opportunity to model what exercising consent over my body looks like. My body, my choice! 

Explain to your child why you have asked for something – ditch the “because I said so”! 

Even if your child is young, I believe they still deserve to understand why they have been asked to do something, or stop doing something, or a suggestion has been made. How else will they learn about informed consent? I often find explaining something to Frida makes a huge difference in terms of her willingness to do something, because it’s not just a meaningless, random request any more. She understands why it is beneficial to her. Her body, her informed choice (even if she then chooses to keep her cardigan on although it’s boiling or chooses to pour water on herself even though she will then be wet!) 

Allow freedom within sensible boundaries 

The brilliant blogger Lucy Aitkenread write something on her blog Lulastic (do you know her blog? It’s so good!) which really struck a cord with me. Writing about the boundaries she enforces, she said she stuck to a simple rule of “harm no body and no thing”. I love this, and come back to it often. 

If a behaviour isn’t harming anyone, or anything, why am I trying to curtail it? Is the problem with Frida’s behaviour, or is the problem that my expectations are unrealistic or that I am trying to exercise control over her? I strongly believe that children need sensible and realistic boundaries, which are upheld consistently, and that for each family those boundaries will look different. But I also think that children need freedom within this boundaries. To learn, to explore, and yes, to test those boundaries to learn where they are and to be reassured that they are still loved if a boundary is broken. 

Hitting someone? No, never ok. Drawing on the wall? Not ok – that damages it. Drawing all over herself? Climbing on the coffee table / dining table? Her body, her choice! (Even if I find it irritating – which I sometimes do! I am not perfect and find certain behaviours very triggering, but I am trying hard to be intentional about asking myself if the problem lies with Frida’s behaviour or with my emotional response. It’s almost always my response!) 

Provide meaningful choices and involve your child in decision making 

From a very young age you can offer children meaningful choices around their body and life. Good places to start might include which outfit to wear that day, what food they would like to eat and how much of it, whether they would like to go to the swimming pool or the park, which toys they play with, which books to read… the list is limitless! For example, aged two, Frida also gets to choose if her hair should be cut or not (she can choose to have her fringe cut or clip it back if it’s in her eyes), if she has a bath or a shower or a flannel wash, if she would like to clean her own face or have me help her, and so on. Her body, her choice!

Obviously there are some things which are non-negotiable, which again I imagine will look different in each family. For us these non-negotiables include tooth brushing and having a clean body. 

Is teaching your child consent important for you? How do you show them that they are the boss of their body? 

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6 thoughts on “Seven ways to encourage consent in young children

  1. Completely agree! We have always ‘asked’ before washing our 2yr old’s bottom at bathtime, changing nappy, removing clothes etc since he was weeks old

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  2. Very important I think! Ripley has had a lot of medical procedures and specialist appointments and we always talk to him like a human being, telling him ‘it will hurt but not for long and we will be here to cuddle you’ or ‘the doctor needs to feel you tummy now’ – whatever is appropriate. Because Ripley has communication issues, we use pictures and words i.e. first we will change your nappy and then we will go play with toys or first we will put on your shoes and then we will go to the park. If he says no to the shoes, I don’t worry about it, it doesn’t hurt me or him or anyone else. I get some funny looks but who cares!

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