Teaching body autonomy and consent from birth is a hot-button topic. Some people wilfully misunderstand, some people go to great lengths to make fun of people who talk about it and some people genuinely don’t understand what it means.
Let me do my best to break it down for you.
Myths and Facts About Teaching Body Autonomy and Consent to Babies and Kids:
Myth 1: Babies are too young to understand consent.
Fact: Babies may not understand the concept of consent like adults do, but they can still learn about boundaries and personal comfort. Respecting their cues and signals is an essential first step.
Myth 2: Teaching consent means kids can refuse anything.
Fact: Teaching consent does not mean children can refuse everything. It means respecting their choices when it comes to their own bodies and personal space, while also guiding them toward safe and responsible decisions.
Myth 3: Teaching consent encourages defiance.
Fact: Teaching consent actually promotes healthy communication and understanding. It empowers children to express their feelings and boundaries, which can lead to better cooperation and respect in the long run.
Myth 4: Kids can’t learn about consent until they’re older.
Fact: Kids can start learning about consent and body autonomy from a very young age.
It’s important to adapt the lessons to their developmental stage, using age-appropriate language and examples.
Myth 5: Consent discussions are only about sex.
Fact: Consent discussions encompass a broad range of situations, from basic body autonomy to social interactions and play. They’re not limited to sexual contexts and can help children navigate various aspects of their lives.
Myth 6: It’s too late to teach older kids about consent.
Fact: It’s never too late to start teaching consent. Even if children are older, you can still have open discussions and guide them towards understanding and respecting boundaries
Teaching body autonomy and consent is a fundamental aspect of their early development that sets the foundation for healthy relationships, boundaries, and self-respect throughout their life. It may seem a complex topic to teach to a baby, but it is never too early to start imparting these important lessons.
How can we educate our kids on body autonomy and consent?
Respect Their Personal Space
Recognise their cues for when they want to be held, played with, or left alone. When a baby cries or pushes away, it may be their way of saying, ‘I need some space right now.’ By acknowledging their signals and giving them the space they need, you are teaching them that their feelings and boundaries matter.
Name Body Parts
One of the most basic ways to teach body autonomy is to use the correct names for body parts. As your baby grows, introduce simple words for their body parts, such as ‘nose,’ ‘eyes,’ ‘tummy,’ and ‘toes.’ This not only promotes body awareness but also helps them understand that their body is their own. ‘Penis’ and ‘vagina’ shouldn’t be taboo words.
Bath Time and Nappy Changes
When bathing your baby or changing their nappies, communicate what you’re doing and why. I’ve explained what I’m doing in a sing-song voice to keep them engaged and distracted. This helps them understand that these activities are necessary for their care and hygiene.
Balancing their body autonomy with their well-being is key.
Let Them Explore
Babies often put their hands and feet in their mouths as part of their natural development. This self-exploration is a crucial way for them to understand their bodies and develop a sense of autonomy.
Consent in Play
As your baby grows and begins to engage in play, pay attention to their reactions. If they seem uncomfortable or uninterested in a certain game or activity, be responsive to their cues. This teaches your baby their feelings and preferences are important.
What does this look like? For example, if a baby shows signs of discomfort or resistance during a game like ‘peek-a-boo,’ or being tickled you can immediately stop and comfort them. This teaches babies that their feelings and comfort matter, laying the foundation for consent and boundaries as they grow. Always respond to their cues with sensitivity and care.
Teach Gentle Touch
When your baby starts interacting with other people, teach them about gentle touch. Show them how to be gentle with your face, hair, or hands, and encourage them to be gentle with others as well. This promotes the idea that respecting others’ bodies is essential. As important as it is to teach consent from the receiving end, it’s vitally important to also teach it from the giving end.
Lead by example. For instance, if you need to clean your baby’s face, tell them what you’re going to do, and wait for a sign of agreement, such as them looking at you or offering a hand. Or, if your baby pulls your hair, gently but firmly say, ‘No, that hurts.’
Keep your tone calm and assertive. Show them how to ask for consent by demonstrating a gentle touch. Take their hand and guide it to your hair, saying, ‘Can you touch my hair gently?’ If they touch your hair gently, praise them with a smile and gentle words like, ‘That’s nice.’
This reinforces the positive behaviour you want to encourage. If your baby still pulls your hair despite your guidance, repeat your initial response of saying ‘No’ and removing their hand gently.
As your baby becomes more mobile and begins exploring their environment, it’s essential to set and enforce boundaries. This can be done gently and consistently, helping them understand that certain areas or actions are off-limits.
I’ve seen some naysayers argue that this means we should allow our kids to touch hot stoves in the name of autonomy. Teaching body autonomy isn’t letting them do something dangerous. The distinction between preventing a toddler from touching a hot oven and respecting their body autonomy is crucial.
Safety concerns, such as preventing a child from touching a hot stove or putting anything into their mouth, should always take precedence to avoid immediate harm.
Consent with Affection
It’s common for adults to want to cuddle and kiss babies, but it’s vital to be mindful of their comfort level. If your baby seems resistant to physical affection, respect their cues, and give them space. Let them initiate physical contact when they feel comfortable.
If a family member or friend wants to hug or kiss your baby or older child, start by offering choices. Say, ‘Would you like to give Grandma a hug or a high-five?’
Pay attention to your baby’s cues. If they lean toward the person or seem comfortable, proceed with the chosen affectionate gesture. If they pull away or seem reluctant, respect their choice, and communicate this to the person wanting to show affection.
Explain to the person that it’s important to respect the baby’s boundaries and that they may not be in the mood for physical affection at that moment.
In your own interactions with the baby, use affirmative language. Say, ‘May I give you a hug?’ This helps them understand the concept of asking for and giving consent. It is not disrespectful if they don’t want to hug or kiss an adult they might only see occasionally.
Communication and Affirmation
Communicate with your baby through words, gestures, rhymes, and songs. Even though they may not fully understand language at first, your tone and presence can convey a sense of safety and respect. As your baby grows, affirm their feelings, and encourage them to express themselves.
Learning about body autonomy and teaching consent is an ongoing process that begins from their earliest days and continues well into adulthood. By respecting their personal space, using appropriate language, and modelling respectful behavior, you are laying the foundation for them to grow up with a strong sense of self and the ability to establish healthy boundaries and consent in all aspects of their life.
Remember that these early lessons will shape their understanding of themselves and their relationships as they grow.
What to read next
- Consent Education to Become Mandatory in Victorian State Schools
- This Mum Got a Telling off Because Her Son Used the Word ‘Penis’
- I Say Penis, You Say Doodle: But What Should We Say Around the Kids?