Consent is a buzzword these days – for good reason – and teaching our kids to respect and protect their bodies (and others’) is important. But how early should we start?
“What’s lovely about starting when they’re little is that there’s no connotation to it. There’s nothing scary or negative – it’s just literally teaching them, ‘Okay, this is your space and this is mine. These are your parts of the body that only you touch, and these are mine.’”
Although Kolari recommends teaching kids the real anatomical words for their private parts, she suggests you don’t get too hung up on it. Funny words are fine – just be sure that for every ‘wee wee,’ there’s a ‘penis’ to back it up. And no matter what, speak in a neutral, confident tone. Kids are very intuitive, says Kolari, and if you’ve got a funny sound in your voice, they’ll sense it, and file it away for future mileage.
Using props can also help. “If you have concepts you want to talk about, like privacy or private parts of the body, without being all charged and weird about it, you can play with dollies and action figures or stuffed animals.” Toys and play are kids’ natural medium, says Kolari, and you can use dolls to name body parts or act out scenarios. For example, Bunny says, “I don’t like that, don’t touch me,” and Turtle says, “Okay, sorry.”
But language is just part of the equation. It’s also essential for kids to understand private space, learning to back off when their enthusiasm leads them to hover too close or hug too hard.
If that’s happening with your toddler (and if it hasn’t yet, it will), be cool about it. Hard ‘Nos’ or shaming will backfire. Whether your child is smothering a friend, annoying you with their grabby hands, or exploring their private parts publicly, Kolari suggests that inappropriate touching is best met with gentle, shame-free redirection.
“If you have three-year-olds playing and they’re grabbing each other, or they’re taking stuff out of each other’s hands, or they’re not understanding [personal] space…then you can tell them, ‘I know you really like that toy and you love sitting right on top of your friend, but your friend needs time to breathe, so we’re just going to have a little sit.’” Let your child sit on your lap for 20 to 30 seconds, then send them back to play. And if they grab their friend again? “You say, ‘Oh-oh, your hands and legs aren’t listening, so let’s come back and have another think’,” says Kolari. “And instead of it being a punitive thing, it’s more of an interruption. And you just quietly repeat that pattern.”
Be a role model
Finally, always remember that you are your child’s best example. There’s little in this world that brings me more joy than hearing my 3-year-old’s childish squeals as I tickle him. But as soon as he says, “Stop,” I do, adding a reminder like, “It’s your body and you said stop, so I stopped,” for good measure. Kolari supports this approach.
“That’s as simple and clean and powerful as you can get, and I love the idea of having stop boundaries when you’re playing, knowing of course that it’s really hard. [Toddlers] don’t have frontal lobes yet, so for them to control their impulses is really difficult. So they’re not going to stop necessarily when you ask them to stop. Don’t stick to a zero tolerance policy, and try not to freak out.”
It will take time, patience, gentle guidance and lots of repetition, but you’ll get there. Or rather, says Kolari, your kid will, and on his or her own time.
“Usually what happens is that your kid will be naked in front of you, and they’ll just suddenly grab a towel and cover up saying something like, ‘Don’t look!’ Then you’ll know that it’s time, that they now have a sense of privacy.”