Normally when we think about consent and the context in which it is taught, our mind goes to a group of college freshmen who are being taught that it is okay to say no and when they do that they should be respected. But maybe that is part of the issue, waiting until young adults are at their most vulnerable stage in life to teach them about protecting their body and demanding respect from others in doing so.
We know that in the United States today, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys will experience child sexual abuse at some point in their childhood and 91% of the time their perpetrator is someone they know (“Preventing”). Additionally it is known that 51.6% of known criminal human trafficking cases in 2018 were cases that involved child victims (Currier). There is no doubt that this issue is affecting the lives of so many children within our neighborhoods and communities, whether we realize it or not. The impact that the abuse makes on these children is long lasting and sometimes irreversible.
In order to prevent children from experiencing this adversity, there needs to be concrete education that happens both within and outside of the home starting at a young age. Although it may seem premature to educate toddlers and young children on staying safe and preventing sexual abuse, there is a way to approach it that is appropriate and effective.
The biggest topic that is addressed in early childhood in regards to prevention is ‘body safety.’ Discussing body safety with your child is not only a way to open the door to future discussions about safety but it also sets the stage for how a child perceives their body and demands respect.
There are several things to consider when talking about body safety, first and foremost body parts should be talked about according to their proper names. Avoid using words such as “pee pee” or “jay jay” and address these body parts as you would their nose, ears, mouth, or eyes. If you are using the word ‘private’ to describe their genitals and other personal body parts, make sure you explain what private means and how to keep it private.
Although young children will not understand the full scope of what consent is, there is an age appropriate way to teach about the basics of consent. For example, children should know that they have a boundary around their body and no one should come into that boundary without permission. This means that there is a mutual understanding between child and parents/friends/teachers etc. when it comes to touch in any form which could look like asking permission to hug your child to model consent and show that they are able to say no when they do not want to be touched.
A tactic typically used by perpetrators on children is the idea of keeping a secret on the abuse that is happening which is followed up by a threat if they do not keep that secret. Teaching children about ‘unsafe secrets’ or secrets regarding their private parts is not okay and should be told to a trusted adult even if there is a threat involved. Children should know that they will never get in trouble for sharing an unsafe secret. To avoid confusion, parents can differentiate surprises vs. secrets; for example if they are surprising a sibling with a birthday party this is very different than if someone is secretly touching their genitals.
Another useful tool to use with children is having a code word that is an agreed upon word that is used by children when they are feeling unsafe. This could be a more comfortable way for a child to tell their parents about an abuse without describing it in detail but could potentially identify the perpetrator. Establish the code word early and stick to that word to avoid confusion.
Additional resources on teaching your child about body safety and consent:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnkVJEZSu2I&t=124s – Kids and Consent 101
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3nhM9UlJjc – Consent for Kids
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iTPPh1d2j8 – Keep Your Hands to Yourself (Boundaries)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EinNeciMgpQ – How to Talk to Preschoolers About Anatomy & Body Safety
Books to Read:
“Let’s Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent & Respect” by Jayneen Sanders
“I Said No!” by Kimberly King
“My Body Belongs to Me” by Dagmar Geisler
“C is for Consent” by Eleanor Morrison
“Don’t Touch My Hair!” by Sharee Miller
“Miles is the Boss of his Body” by Samantha Kurtzman-Counter, Abbie Schiller, and Valentina Ventimiglia
“No Means No!” by Jayneen Sanders and Cherie Zamazing
“Will Ladybug Hug?” by Hiliary Leung