Talking to your kids about consent is important at any age.
Last week I found one of my children trying to lick the butt of another one. I’m not going to say who was the licker and who was the lick-ee, because 1. it doesn’t make the story any more or less horrific and 2. once something is on the internet, it never dies (should one of them decide to run for office one day).
I had planned to start this article out with a really poignant story about my favorite uncle Mark. I was all set to illustrate how complicated consent can be with kids by relating a story of the frequent tickling matches he and I used to engage in.
But I got about seven sentences in and remembered that last week my kids were well on their way to booty town, which, if you want to talk to your kids about consent, is as apt an example as any. And in that case in particular, a lesson in boundaries and appropriate sibling behavior.
(And also in e.coli.)
I have five kids. I open a lot of my articles with that qualifier because being an RN is one thing, but being a mother is another thing entirely. I studied my ass off for that degree, but there is nothing quite like bearing and raising five kids.
And by nothing, I mean the only thing like it is, let’s say you were stripped naked and drug around the dessert tied to the leg of a camel, then stomped on by a baby rhino and thrown by a pack of wolves into a ravine, where you are expected to survive with nothing but two buttons, some pocket lint, and a piece of gum melted to its wrapper.
Does any of that make sense? NO.
Neither does motherhood. Enjoy.
I’ve been trying to perfect this business of parenting for 22 years now and I am still jacking it up regularly, but I have learned a few things (about a lot of things) along the way. One of the things I’ve learned is that there is no good time to have norovirus. One of the other things I have learned is that if you are not paying close attention, your kids may try to lick each others’ butts.
“Lick my butt.”
Yes, technically that would be consent. Which is exactly what I found myself calmly explaining to my five-and seven-year-old children last week — but only AFTER I screamed at the top of my lungs “DO NOT LICK YOUR SISTER’S BUTT! STOP IT RIGHT NOW! DONOTDOTHAT!”
Wondering how to talk to your kids about consent? It's not hard as you’d think — the conversation changes over the years, but it’s all got the same framework.
1. What is mine is mine. What is yours is yours.
2. No one may touch my body without my permission. I may not touch anyone else’s body without their permission.
Here’s what teaching consent might look like on a more practical level, based on age/age range.
For babies (newborn to toddler):
This is the foundation of consent. WIthout language, it might not look like it, but what is crying? What is the love and nurturing of a parent? This is the language of infancy. This is the beginning of understanding autonomy.
What can you do:
Hold them when they cry. Put them down when they push you away.
By meeting your child’s needs, you have taught them that they can ask for something and receive it.
For toddler to preschool (18 months - 3 years):
This is the time of discovery. Babies figure out that they have bodies. They learn that their body and your body are not the same.
They learn what parts of their bodies feel good to touch, and those that do not. Babies don’t stab themselves repeatedly in the eye, but every baby boy I’ve ever seen has quickly located his penis.
Of course he should pull and pinch it! (I mean it looks AWFUL but hey, not my penis.) Of course little girls will play with their vulva. Don’t you?
What can you do:
Allow them discovery. Allow them to snuggle and allow them to run.
Stop telling your children to hug people they don’t want to hug. Start telling those people to let your children dictate the frequency and intimacy of contact.
I don’t care if you only see old Aunt Mildred once a year on Thanksgiving, no one has to hug her. And if your kid is weirded out by Uncle Keith, that’s fine. Honestly, I’m kind of weirded out by Uncle Keith, too.
School age kiddos (up to middle school-ish or age of sexual maturity):
Bodies get funny during this time. Boys and girls realize they aren’t like each other.
This is time you’ll find your kids (and their friends) “playing doctor,” which may look like “LOOK AT MY PENIS.”
THIS IS NORMAL. Your children are not deviants. Don’t make them feel like it.
What can you do:
Continue to remind them that they are in charge of their body. No one, NO ONE, should be touching it unless there is a medical reason to do so.
Now is a good time to talk about what we do in private and alone, (ie touching our own genitals) and what we do in public.
Things can get muddy for parents here because your kids aren’t at an age where they can consent to any sexual act but ALSO they are at an age where exploration is going to happen.
I’ve been asked many times how to handle this and I don’t know that there is a one-size-fits-all-kids answer, but I do know how I consistently deal with the situation. Again, yours is yours, theirs is theirs, touching each others is not appropriate right now, even if you say it’s “ok.”
I think it’s fine to tell kids that adults DO touch each other. They aren’t stupid. Follow their questions with answers. My kids all learned about where babies come from before middle school. So this is a perfectly reasonable time to talk about consenting adult behavior.
Kids will ask why. “Why can’t I touch X and X touch me?”
The answer is: Because you are not old enough to decide that safely.
Ok moving on.
Middle and high school age:
Things are getting real during this time.
Hormones are everywhere. You sons are drowning in their own testosterone. You daughters' bodies are ovulating and trying to convince them to procreate. Biology is cruel.
There will be touching. If you are a parent who believes your child will remain chaste because you told them to, best of luck to you.
You do not have to be terrified to raise teenagers. It is not as bad as people make it seem.
What can you do:
This is the time to get crystal clear. Even if your kids aren’t having sex, their friends are — I promise you. The chances of your childrens’ peers having parents who take time to talk to them about consent aren’t good, so don’t count on it.
Rules are the same, regardless of sex:
1. Do not touch someone without their VERBAL permission.
2. You do not have to let anyone touch you, EVER. If you say no and they persist, leave. If you cannot leave, call me. If you cannot call me, yell, kick them in the shins, hit them with an upward motion on their nose using the hard part of your palm.
3. If you are touched against your will, I will protect you. No questions asked.
4. It does not matter at what point of undress you find yourself, you can always say stop.
5. If your partner says stop, you STOP.
6. If you want something from your partner (a different position, oral sex, whatever), ASK using WORDS. If they do not say YES (USING WORDS), consider it a NO. Period.
7. Do not touch someone without their VERBAL permission.
Talking with kids about consent is only as scary as you let it be. Start these conversations early and honestly and they will flow as they need to.