When should a kid learn about consent?

Teaching kids how to give, receive and understand consent is crucial. It’s about way more than just “no means no,” and the conversation should start far sooner than you might expect.

In the video, Zuri is lying on her stomach on a bed. The young girl grins, looking directly at the camera as she draws herself up to complete a sentence: “No means…no!” she proclaims. There’s no grey area here. When Zuri says no, you’d better listen.

For most parents, that combination of easy confidence and clear boundaries is what we dream of for our daughters and sons. Certainly, Zuri’s mother, Staceyann Chin, an activist and writer in Brooklyn, NY, seems to swell with quiet pride as she gazes at her girl. The two are curled up side by side in a recent episode of Living Room Protests, their collection of YouTube videos commenting on social-justice issues that launched last December and went viral shortly thereafter.

What might surprise you, though, is this: Zuri is three. Not only is she able to express the broad concepts of yes and no, but she also readily applies them to her own body. Other people, she explains, can only pick her up or tickle her if she gives them explicit permission.

To some, three might seem alarmingly early to broach the subject of consent. But according to experts, it’s easy to introduce the concept in ways that are appropriate for a kid’s specific developmental stage—and may have nothing at all to do with sex. “There’s so much research out there about how kids learn so much in their first five years,” says Marnie Goldenberg, a sex educator in Vancouver. The earlier we explore the idea of consent—who can enter your personal space, how and when—she says, the more likely they will absorb important concepts like autonomy, respect and healthy relationships.

Debuting this fall, Ontario’s revised health education curriculum—specifically the sections on sexual reproductive health—has attracted a lot of unwelcome attention. Part of the controversy focuses on the plan to teach elementary school students the concept of consent. Critics argue it will strip children of their innocence and teach them to say yes to sex. The reality is that kids are more likely to become both victims and perpetrators of sexual assault and exploitation if they lack a firm grasp of the concept. And it seems we could all use a refresher. According to a recent Canadian Women’s Foundation survey, two-thirds of Canadians don’t understand what constitutes consent. It’s more important than ever to provide young people with clear, direct information. It’s time to start talking.

Babies and toddlers: Start early

Before your child is even able to talk, you can communicate about bodies and safety. Even if she doesn’t yet understand the words you’re using, explaining what you’re doing, say, during a diaper change—“I’m just putting balm on to soothe your skin”—and asking for permission—“Is it OK if we take these wet pyjamas off now?”—can convey a powerful message.

Chin doesn’t remember when she first introduced the notion of consent to Zuri—the idea of boundaries has been embedded in her conversations with her daughter since before they started talking about body parts. While playing, for example, Zuri might protect a certain area. “She would say, ‘No! No toes!’ And I would say, ‘OK! These are your toes, and if you say I can’t touch them, I can’t touch them.’” This dynamic can be challenging when your obstinate two-year-old simply refuses to let you put on her socks. Chin often navigates such roadblocks by trying to involve Zuri in the process of whatever she’s trying to accomplish. “You just have to get creative,” she says. “Zuri likes to be affirmed: ‘Wow, you can do that yourself?’ Or, ‘OK, you don’t want this colour? Good idea. Shall we go look for another pair of socks?’”

If you’re pressed for time and wrestling with a toddler who absolutely won’t get dressed, you can take control of the situation—but Goldenberg insists it’s key to explain why you’re overruling your kid’s desires. “You can say, ‘I’d be happy to let you do this, but I’m late for work and we have to get you to daycare.’” As well, acknowledging a child’s autonomy means being explicit about the people who may or may not be allowed to cross certain physical boundaries. “We can help kids understand that no one should touch their bodies without their permission,” Goldenberg says. There should be hard rules about private parts: Be clear about which people can be granted that permission, she says—Mom or Dad, or a doctor, for example—and in which situations (going to the bathroom, getting a checkup). For other body parts, you’ll want to discuss the context and nuance of situations and people. “There’s a difference between an elbow and a vulva,” Goldenberg says. “So make it an ongoing conversation.” You don’t want your kid yelling, “Don’t touch my back!” at a party when you’re just trying to make an exit, for instance.

Toddlerhood is also when children learn to assert themselves in the world, which can mean acting out physically. “They’re starting to realize their bodies have power,” says Goldenberg. “Parents can celebrate that—and at the same time, encourage kids to remember that they can exercise self-control and they ought not to impose their bodies on other people in ways that might hurt or scare them,” like hitting or kicking.

Preschool: Teach respect

For Toronto mom Piya Chattopadhyay, the conversation about consent started itself. Last fall, her four-year-old daughter, Jasmine, became fascinated by media coverage of the Jian Ghomeshi case, asking questions and talking about it constantly. That the story would pique Jasmine’s interest wasn’t surprising to Chattopadhyay—she and her husband are both CBC journalists who regularly discuss news at home, plus she was frequently filling in for Ghomeshi on his program—but she was initially stuck on how to approach the subject. “I thought, I have three choices: I lie to my daughter, which is never something I like to do; I pretend that this isn’t affecting her, that she doesn’t have questions; or I address it as best I can for a four-year-old’s brain.”

Her strategy was to present the scandal in terms that would make sense to her girl. “We constantly tell our young children a couple of things: Be kind to people; treat people with respect; don’t hurt them; don’t hit them,” she says. This situation presented an opportunity to talk about how actions have consequences. “I said, ‘This is why we tell you not to hit or hurt people, because it hurts in many ways.’”

As we’re teaching kids to respect others, Goldenberg notes that it’s also important for parents to allow children their own personal space. “There was a time when it was socially acceptable to tell your kids that they had to go and hug their creepy uncle,” she says, but that’s now changing—for the better. Politeness, Goldenberg stresses, is still valuable, but it’s becoming more accepted to let kids do what’s most comfortable for them. “If your kid doesn’t feel like hugging or kissing her uncle,” Goldenberg says, “suggest she give him a high-five or wave.”

School age: Go beyond ‘No’

The foundation of Ontario’s updated health education program has alarmed parents who worry that their sons and daughters will be exposed to explicit sexual content at too young an age. But the basis of the curriculum, which begins in grade one (around age six), provides kids with tools that will help them assess when they’re in danger and protect themselves accordingly, as well as strategies for relationship building, understanding personal boundaries, respecting others, and respecting and communicating decisions.

Far from a premature indoctrination, this groundwork based on consent and communication simply involves developing the skill of saying “no” in situations that feel uncomfortable—a concept that is already taught to seven- and eight-year-olds in British Columbia schools—and being encouraged to tell a trusted adult about any instances of inappropriate touching. (Education about consent varies from province to province. In Alberta, an explicit discussion of the topic is absent from the current curriculum, though trustees are lobbying for its inclusion; in Nova Scotia, it’s part of a broader discussion about healthy sexual relationships that happens around grade seven.)

Parents can do their part by helping kids use concrete language in small-scale conflicts, Goldenberg says. “I’ll often hear my kids yelling at each other: ‘No! Stop! No!’ And I always say to the person who’s yelling, ‘Please be more specific with your request.’ He’ll say, ‘I told him ‘stop!’ six times.’ And I say, ‘But we don’t know if he is clear about what you’re asking him to stop.’”

Saying no is not the only skill kids need, Goldenberg adds. Discuss the importance of offering an enthusiastic yes when you’re okay with something, and explore what grey areas look and sound like. She stresses that consent is not as clear as the “no means no” mantra makes it seem. “We’re human beings, and we give mixed messages,” she says, urging parents to make sure kids can listen for and identify nuances, and read facial expressions and body language. Kids should also learn that consent is not static—that everyone has the right to change their mind. If someone agrees to something initially—a game of tag, for instance—and decide later they want to stop, it’s important to listen and respect that decision.

Goldenberg uses everyday interactions with her own children as teaching moments. “I’ll say, ‘I hear you say, “Yeah, I understand, Mommy,” but you’re giggling and reading a book, so what message do you think I’m getting from you?’” She also encourages parents to help kids tap into their own experiences. You might ask, for example, what feelings your daughter had when someone called her a cruel name or took something of hers without asking—and follow up by talking about her external response, any differences between the two reactions, and why she thinks that disparity exists for her.

Tween: Examine values

As kids get older, talk can turn to bigger issues, like personal beliefs and values. “If we share our values, we’re more likely to have our children adopt them too, especially if we’re offering some sort of rationale,” Goldenberg says. This applies to ideas around appropriate sexual interactions as well as more basic human principles, like the importance of standing up and speaking out when another kid is being bullied, for example.

At this age, it’s also essential to make sure young people—especially boys, who Goldenberg feels can receive confusing messages around masculinity and toughness—know the value of speaking up and confronting their peers, whether they happen to witness an instance of sexual harassment or are the recipients of racy texts. “We need to talk to young men about being bystanders,” she says. Tweens should understand, for example, that possessing nude pictures of their peers is illegal, and that even if they didn’t snap the photos, allowing a friend to pass them along makes them complicit, particularly if those images wind up on their own phone.

Role-playing is an excellent way to help kids figure out how to navigate uncomfortable situations. With her own sons, who are eight and 11, Goldenberg finds that running through hypothetical scenarios—out loud and in depth—is hugely beneficial. She pushes her boys to move beyond the basics. “I’ll say, ‘Let’s go over the language of letting someone know you don’t like the way they’re talking to you or how they’re touching your body. What exactly would you say?’” This exercise, she says, gives kids practice and allows older siblings to model positive behaviour for younger ones.

Another topic to explore: gender dynamics. Acknowledge that girls are often not treated the same as boys. Ask kids why they think that is, whether they have experienced or seen it, and what kinds of problems might come out of the imbalance. According to a recent study in International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, sex-ed programs that included frank messages about gender and power were markedly more effective than those that didn’t. Talking openly about these issues helps young people become empathetic, enlightened adults. As Goldenberg notes, “With consent, sexuality is only the tip of the iceberg. This is just fundamentally about how to be with other people.”

A version of this article appeared in our September 2015 issue with the headline, “When should a child learn about consent?”, p. 106.