Establishing boundaries isn’t just for you and your child’s relationship - it serves as a tool in all their future interactions. One important aspect of boundaries is consent, both giving and receiving it. As we aim to create a safer world for our kids, it’s never too early or late to start teaching them the importance of healthy consent. Below, we’ve compiled a list of ideas to try with your kids to help them navigate boundaries.
Teaching Young Children (Ages 1-5)
Sometimes it can be hard to know where to start, especially with our young ones. How do we explain consent to a youngster? It’s important to remember that consent starts with empathy. By teaching empathy, we are also guiding them to consider others’ feelings and boundaries. While they may not understand all the concepts yet, we can start to get the wheels turning. Here are a few easy ways you can encourage
1. Teach kids to ask permission from playmates
This can be as easy as using language like “let’s ask (playmate) if they would like a hug bye-bye!”. If the answer is no, you can cheerfully tell your child to wave instead.
2. Encourage empathy
It’s always important to show your kid why something they did may have hurt someone else. Encourage your child to imagine how they would feel about the same being done to them. This doesn’t have to be a lecture - you can tell them in a loving way so they don’t feel ashamed. It can be as simple as “I know you wanted a turn on the swings, but hitting Johnny hurt him and made him feel sad. We don’t want Johnny to be sad because we hurt him.”
3. Give them a voice in everyday choices
Give your young one a chance to tell you “yes” or “no”, even when it comes to small daily decisions. By letting them have a say in something like their outfit or hairstyle, they learn that their voice matters and that it matters to you. Of course, sometimes it’s important to intervene if they want to wear shorts in the winter! But providing small choices can help a child develop a sense of autonomy.
4. Teach the importance of “no” and “stop”
It’s important to show that “no” is a word to be honored. Tell them when their playmate says no, it means they have to stop immediately. It’s also crucial to teach the opposite; our friends should stop when we say “no”. By setting this standard, you’re helping your child internalize how important that word is for both them and others.
5. Don’t force them to hug or kiss anyone, even family
When relatives go in for a kiss and your child resists, ask them if they’d prefer to blow a kiss or high-five. Even when loved ones are well-intentioned, you’re showing your child that their boundaries and comfort level always come first.
If you feel it’s necessary, you can pull aside relatives at a later time to explain what you’re doing and why. Ultimately, no matter their opinions on it, you’re doing your job by prioritizing your child’s needs.
Teaching Older Children (6-12)
1. Normalize changing bodies
It’s important to normalize puberty and the changes that come with it (pimples, growing hair, etc.) while also recognizing that these can feel really uncomfortable. When they have questions, be direct and answer without any shame or embarrassment. If it feels challenging to not get flustered talking about these sensitive topics, practice until you can act like it’s no big deal with your kid. By showing them they can feel safe discussing these issues with you, you’re establishing a sense of trust.
2. Teach kids to look for ways to help
Whether that’s opening the door for someone or inviting the new kid to sit with them at lunch, teach your kids to look for opportunities to help those around them. It can also encourage them to be more observant of those around them, and identify situations where they can intervene.
3. Encourage them to express how things make them feel
By teaching them to think about and express what feels “good” or “bad”, you help your child to begin recognizing their own bodily reactions and signals. Do you like being tickled? What doesn’t feel good? Give your child a space to express what they do or don’t like.
4. Don’t tease your kids about “boy-girl” friendships
What your child is feeling is normal and okay. By giving them space to share (or not share) their feelings, you become a consistent safe place for them. If they don’t want to talk about it, no need to push - as long as they know they can come to you if/when they need to, that’s all that matters.
5. Ask your kids before hugging
Between parents and children, practice asking each other if they would like a hug or kiss. This reinforces a child’s choice with their bodies and respect for other people’s personal space and bodies. It also demonstrates that even within your family, each individual has a right to accept or turn down certain interactions. Asking for consent can be as simple as asking, “can I give you a hug?”.
For Teens and Young Adults
1. Continue building self-esteem
While we’re used to building up our kids when they’re young, we forget that it’s our teens who may actually need to hear it the most. With bullying and insecurities at an all-time high, make a point to compliment and encourage them. Make a point to emphasize their talents, their skills, their intelligence, their kindness - you name it. Compliments about their hair or outfit are okay, but focus your comments on their inner qualities so they can understand their worth isn’t defined by their appearance.
2. Reiterating “good” and “bad” touch
Beginning in middle school, we start to see blurred lines of what is “good” and “bad” touch. Whether it’s butt-slapping or other forms of roughhousing, kids will often tease one another through these types of “games”.
It’s important to have conversations with our kids about these kinds of interactions. They may insist they’re jokes or laugh it off, but try to encourage them to talk about it. How would they feel if someone hit them in that way or made them feel uncomfortable? Creating conversations like these helps show that accountability is important when it comes to consent. While many of these games may not be done with intent to harm, it is important to intervene in these moments - feeling entitled to another’s personal space should be taken seriously.
3. Ask them about their understanding of consent
Rather than assume your teen knows what consent is- why not ask them? This lets you know what you need to address, and if there is confusion or uncertainty on the topic. Most importantly, they should understand the importance of a “yes” and “no” when it comes to their and others’ boundaries. Even though it may seem "obvious", ask them if they know how to ask if they can hug someone or if they know how to respond to someone else's boundary. It's much better for them to learn from you than to be too afraid to ask!
4. Talk to teen boys and young men about healthy masculinity
Much of what our society teaches boys and young men, unfortunately, contributes to an unhealthy view of masculinity in relation to themselves and others. Many boys and men can feel pressured to embody certain traits, which can lead some to act aggressively or violently towards others and themselves. To combat toxic masculinity and the negative repercussions it can have, it’s important to reiterate healthy masculinity to young boys by showing them to:
Know how to address disrespect
Express emotions freely
Demonstrate compassion and kindness towards themselves and others
Identify a safe space to open up about experiences and have their feelings validated
Check-in with male friends and loved ones
Young boys and men who are more connected to their emotions are more likely to understand their own boundaries, as well as others’.
Healthy relationships require healthy personal boundaries, and it is never too early for parents to start addressing these topics. Establishing healthy boundaries can be tiring, and as your children get older, they may be unsure about when to do so. But by having these important conversations, we’re giving them the tools they need to create stronger relationships.
Jacobson, Rae. “Teaching Kids about Boundaries.” Child Mind Institute, 2 Aug. 2022, https://childmind.org/article/teaching-kids-boundaries-empathy/.
Schroeder, Joanna. “The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21.” Talk With Your Kids, https://www.talkwithyourkids.org/lets-talk-about/healthy-sex-talk-teaching-kids-consent-ages-1-21.html#:~:text=Teach%20children%20to%20ask%20permission,%2C%20%E2%80%9CThat's%20okay%2C%20Sarah.
“Teaching Kids about Healthy Boundaries.” OurFamilyWizard, https://www.ourfamilywizard.com/blog/teaching-kids-about-healthy-boundaries.
“Toxic Masculinity vs. Healthy Masculinity.” Green Hill Recovery, 23 June 2022, https://greenhillrecovery.com/toxic-masculinity-vs-healthy-masculinity/.
“Why We Need to Teach Boys about Positive Masculinity.” Next Gen Men, Next Gen Men, 20 Aug. 2022, https://www.nextgenmen.ca/blog/why-we-need-to-teach-boys-about-positive-masculinity.