Teaching Kids Consent

Jean-Paul Pelissier / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The Stanford case left many feeling horrified—not least among them parents, who struggled to grasp the reality of “that could’ve been my kid.” A viral letter from Brock Turner’s father to the judge quickly brought parenting into the controversy. “Brock is not the victim here,” one North Carolina father shot back, according to The Washington Post. “His victim is the victim.”

The high-profile case sparked a discussion in Notes: How should parents talk about rape and consent with their kids? First, Juleyka shared her story. “My sons are still very young, but when the time comes, we’ll have many conversations with them—about their bodies, about attraction, about permission and consent, about building love from friendship, and about accountability,” she wrote, inviting other parents to write in.

Many readers—including some parents of kids under 5—responded to her callout. “I’ve been thinking about this topic since my son’s birth two years ago,” writes one primary school teacher and mother. She continues:

Consent has as much to do with setting personal boundaries—for yourself and others—as it does with preventing sexual assault. Explaining consent to small children has little to do with sex, although it does help prevent sexual assault as well as giving children a voice if they are threatened by or actually assaulted at any age.

Learning consent for small children means if you are tickling your best friend and she says to stop then you stop—even though you personally think tickles are the best. Consent means that when you're wrestling with your friend and you can tell he doesn't want to anymore, you stop—even if you love rough-housing and could wrestle forever.

Understanding consent at a young age is formative for all kinds of adult relationships: For example, if a friend wants to quit a game because he's losing or is being a poor sport that's fine, but you tell him that you don't like the way he quit and next time you won't play that game with him again.

These are basic yet very important social skills that are the building blocks of developing empathy and self-worth. This is teaching children to have boundaries and stand up for themselves and others. In the pre-teen and teen years it's important to explicitly explain how this pertains to sex, yet the main idea remains the same.

Here’s another parent of young daughter:

We have a 4-year-old and have taught her the following (applicable to any sort of situation): “Just because you ask nicely doesn't mean the person has to say yes, and just because someone asks you nicely doesn't mean you have to say yes.”

Right now, that mainly covers sharing toys, having cookies and screen time, and not going to bed, but our hope is that, by the time she is old enough for sexual consent to be an issue, she will have internalized that she doesn't have to feel pressured by polite-but-entitled boys (or girls).

In an interview with my colleague Adrienne LaFrance, Scott Berkowitz—the founder and president of RAINN—offered the following advice: “When speaking to a national audience or the general public, we strongly encourage parents to have those conversations starting at the age when their kids are starting to spend more time with friends out of the home, and start to be in social situations that could turn dangerous... even if it’s before the parents think [it’s appropriate for their child to be sexually active].” (Adrienne spoke with Berkowitz for her piece on what happens when people stop talking about the Stanford rape case.) RAINN’s guide on talking to kids about sexual assault recommends that parents “teach young children the language they need to talk about their bodies and information about boundaries to help them understand what is allowed and what is inappropriate.”

Another good resource is The Huffington Post's "list of parenting action items" for talking about consent, including kids under 5. Have other recommendations of resources for teaching consent specifically? Let us know.

Crystal Holsinger, the mother of two daughters under age 4, says she started teaching consent to her girls “from the day they were born”:

While I do think it is important to address sexual assault and rape at a certain point with children and young adults, I believe that teaching consent starts at birth. An example would be when a person asks me to hold our baby. It may seem silly, but I say, “Ask her.” If they do, and she reaches out for them, great. If they try to and she is upset, then she stays with me. A person’s body is theirs, at one day old or 50 years old.

Another example is with our 3-year-old. We never force physical affection. If she doesn't want to hug her grandparents, uncle, or whomever, then we respect that. We also teach (demonstrate) for her that if another person doesn't want to hug, hold hands, or high five, then it's their choice. Their body, their choice.

We have had friends who try to force our child to hug theirs (often a boy) because they think it's cute. We have to reaffirm that no one ever should feel pressured into that.

Before our girls were born, I taught middle-school sexual health education and wove consent into the discussion every day. What does consent look like, sound like, feel like? I took a more direct approach with the 7th and 8th grade years, and went into how drinking and drugs come into play.

Have you talked to your preteen about consent? Have thoughts about how consent should be taught in schools? Drop us a note.