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3 Everyday Ways to Talk About Consent With Toddlers

The topic of consent is not one I expected to be having anytime soon. I have two daughters under 4, and neither of them are in school. I anticipated breaking the talk into small, digestible bites when they started grade school and slowly amping up the details as they grew older.

At least, this is what I believed until recently, when something happened in our home that helped me realize I was wrong to wait to talk about consent. It wasn’t anything dramatic, or life-altering. It was one of the typical, run-of-the-mill altercations that have become a part of my everyday life as a mom.

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Sitting on the couch with a book, I watched one daughter grab the other by the leg and drag her down the hall while screaming, “YOU HAVE TO COME PLAY WITH ME.”

That was when I knew I needed to start talking to my girls about consent right away. I didn’t want to wait until a classmate or an adult violated personal boundaries, I needed to address the small and mostly harmless violations that happen in the safety of our own home. So, I consulted experts online and a few moms who had a few years of experience on the issue and started implementing these three practices in our day-to-day life.

1. Add a few books to your home library.

One of the first pieces of advice I was given was to approach this conversation during completely neutral times of play and reading. I was thrilled to get so many awesome book recommendations that were completely appropriate for the development phase my children were in.

I knew I didn’t want to scare my kids, so I ordered two light-hearted books I found online. "No Means No!" clearly addresses the topic of consent. The book explains a few different scenarios where a young child should feel empowered to say no to someone else, like when they don’t want to be tickled or kissed. The second book, The "Flip-Flap Body Book" is less about consent and more of an introduction to how bodies work.

There is a fine line between showing my girls affection and violating their personal space.

2. Respect their boundaries and back them up when they set boundaries with others.

Let’s be honest, as their mom I feel entitled to kiss, squeeze or tickle my kids whenever I please, but I have started to realize that there is a fine line between showing my girls affection and violating their personal space. Of course, I still show my girls plenty of affection, but I am quick to back off if they shrug me off or say no to cuddles.

Similarly, if my girls refuse affection from others, adults or children, I respect that boundary and enforce if need be. This isn’t a new idea; it has become common advice in parenting circles to never force our kids to be affectionate with the adults. Typically, I keep my distance and let my daughters be the one to say no. I think it is empowering for them to use their words and their voice to own control of their body. Of course, I want to be an ally for them if necessary and I am always quick to step in if their boundaries aren’t being respected.

3. Require them to respect others.

As a mom, it is really easy for me to see my daughters as needing to be defended but not so easy to imagine them being the ones crossing boundaries of personal space and privacy. Still, if I really pay attention, it is so obvious that my even toddlers need to be taught to respect the bodies of their friends and families, whether they are dragging a sibling down the hallway or trying to shower an annoyed friend with kisses.

To be perfectly honest, at times it is exhausting teaching this lesson over and over again with toddlers who are slow to learn. But it is important our kids know they should ask before they touch, listen when they are told no, and that there a certain parts of the body that shouldn’t be touched. Personally, I have found bath time and play time naturally create opportunities for these lessons, and I have been trying my hardest to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself.

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Like many parents my age, I didn’t grow up in a culture that talked openly about our bodies, sex, or how to protect our bodies from offenders. At times, it has been uncomfortable to address topics of consent and self-protection with my girls, but the more I make it a part of our everyday life, the more natural it feels to have these talks with my kids. My hope is by starting conversations about their bodies now, how babies are made and how to say “no” when someone wants to make them do something they don’t want to do, they will feel comfortable coming to me with questions or concerns as they grow older.

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