In the wake of the #MeToo movement, we are now giving more attention to abuse and consent than ever before. This has empowered abuse victims to come forward and finally be heard, which is an essential component of bringing about change.
Another key piece of the puzzle is going to the very beginning. Right from birth, children are sponges who begin absorbing the world around them. This includes the good and the bad. If we can get through to children in their early years as they are going through their most significant developmental growth, we can set them on a path toward a future where they understand boundaries and the importance of consent.
Parents and early childhood educators play a critical role in this process. They, perhaps more than anyone else, teach children the attitudes, beliefs and customs of the world around them. If they can provide children with the skills they need to respect one another, then it is not difficult to imagine a future where issues of harassment become less and less commonplace.
In this article, we’ll go over important tools and techniques that can be used to help teach consent to children in preschool. It may get a bit uncomfortable to talk about these things in the context of young children, but it is important to break through that stigma so we can address these issues as they are developing so they don’t become larger later on in life.
Here are techniques for you to try to help teach preschoolers all about consent:
When a child does something problematic, explain how what they did made the other child feel, and ask how they would like it if the situation were reversed. The more that kids consider the feelings of others, the more they will consider the impact that their actions have on the other person vs. just focusing on how it benefits themself.
Use Words That They Understand
Make the process easier for everyone by using words that are age-appropriate. A preschooler might not understand the nuances of the word ‘consent’ but they will understand ‘body’, ‘space’ and ‘touch’, which will give them a vocabulary to work with to better understand these concepts.
Avoid Harassment-Enforcing Stereotypes
Without necessarily realizing it, many things we teach children about the behavior of boys and girls end up supporting harmful behavior. How many times have you heard one of these clichés:
- Boys will be boys.
- He pushed you because he likes you.
- Girls are pure and need to be protected.
While these may seem innocent in the early years, they set children up for behavior that will be much more serious in later years. It normalizes and makes excuses for abuse, which we want to be teaching should never be acceptable. Using the above examples, girls should learn to stand up for themselves, just as boys shouldn’t learn that aggression is a sign of affection.
Let Children Know That You’ll Believe Them
Sometimes, children have difficulty coming forward because they don’t think that the adult will take them seriously. Tell the children in your life that they should always let you know if someone has harmed them and you will believe them no matter what. This will help to prevent them from keeping instances to themself so you can address problems right when they happen.
Never Force Kids to Hug or Kiss
“Now give grandma a kiss!” might be well-intentioned and coming out of love, but if a child does not want to perform that action, it is normalizing the idea that they need to perform intimate actions even if it is against their will. Instead of telling them to do this, ask them if they would like to. And most importantly, if they say no, then respect their wishes even if it means some hurt feelings along the way. A simple “OK, how about just a wave goodbye this time” will suffice this time and ensure that the child does not learn the wrong behavior.
Regularly Ask ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ Questions
Give children the option to say yes or no in a wide range of activities so they can get into the habit of it. This teaches the important skills of decision-making and speaking up for themselves, which are so important when it comes to protecting yourself in potentially harmful situations. You can casually ask this during activities (“would you like to play with this fire truck now?”) or even plan entire lessons around it (for example, presenting a wide variety of scenarios like ‘crossing the street without looking’ or ‘reading a story before bed’ and asking if they should say yes or no).
Help Those in Trouble
When a classmate is in distress, it shouldn’t be someone else’s problem. Children should be taught that if they see someone being harmed, they should come to their aid by either speaking up for them or alerting a nearby adult.
The Importance of ‘No’ and ‘Stop’
The words ‘no’ and ‘stop’ are key parts of consent. The children need to learn two lessons here: first, to use these words when they do not like what is happening, and second, to respect these words when someone says them, no matter what.
Always Ask Before Touching Someone Else
Children should learn that it’s never OK to touch another person without asking them first. Even something as simple as a hug or holding hands should require permission. Explain that it’s OK to say no if they do not want to participate and that if another person says no, then they need to respect that.
Listen to Your ‘Gut Feelings’
Children have a lot more intuition than we often give them credit for. They can have a strong gut feeling that something may be wrong, despite the environment and words around them telling them otherwise. Teach kids about what ‘gut feelings’ or instincts are and to trust it in order to protect and speak up for themselves.
Express Your Emotions
The more that kids are told “don’t cry” or “don’t be angry,” the more they will feel like they need to hold it in when something bad has happened to them. Instead of suppressing it, allow children to react naturally and then try to get to the root cause of the problem.
Read Body Language
Some children are more vocal than others, and so they will continue with what they are doing because they haven’t heard ‘no’ or ‘stop.’ Teach kids how to read body language and facial expressions. If they are approaching another child for a hug and that child is recoiling and frowning, that should be treated the same way as hearing the word ‘no.’
Ask for Help
Teach kids that when they are experiencing something that they do not like then they should ask for help. The child shouldn’t ever feel like they are being a burden, so it is important that whoever they come to knows to be welcoming and patient with them.
‘Safe’ vs. ‘Unsafe’ Touches
When it comes to touching others, kids need to know the difference between what is ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe.’ An example of a ‘safe’ touch would be a high five, whereas private parts are considered ‘unsafe’ and should be left alone.
Use Proper Names for Private Parts
Give children the vocabulary they need to report abuse by teaching them the proper names for their genitalia. This will help to remove the stigma commonly associated with their private parts as something to be ashamed of, and instead, treat them as normal parts of their body that they feel empowered to speak about when in need of help.
By making consent a focus in the early years, we will be setting the foundations for the next generation to be respectful of boundaries and always seek consent.
What are some ways that you teach consent in your classroom? Let us know in the comments!