Navigating Consent With My 3 Year Old

Toddlers are notorious for grabbing, touching, and just generally invading body boundaries and personal space. From licking random objects, to shoving beads up their nose, toddlers learn all about their bodies by exploring them. In an attempt to raise a kid who knows that their body is their body, and that they have complete autonomy and control over who touches them, I’ve been talking to my daughter about consent since she was born.

When she was an infant, this looked like talking about what I was doing. For example, “You just went poop in your diaper. I know you don’t like when I change your diaper, and I get it. But if I don’t change your diaper, you will get a rash.” It also looked like putting my hands out so she could see them before I massaged her with baby lotion. If she didn’t want to be touched at that moment, I chose to stop and try again later. As she got older, consent means I asked her if she wanted to try to wipe herself. Put the diaper cream on herself.

Kids deserve to be listened to and respected. Adults get too comfortable controlling kids’ bodies – from moving them without asking first or explaining what they are doing (e.g. I am picking you up because you might get hit by a car standing too close to the road), to affirming other kids and adults unwanted touches by saying things like, “Oh, Naomi just really likes to give hugs. She’s just trying to say hi! It’s okay…don’t be so grumpy about it.”

Since H was a little over a year old, we’ve been reading books like C is for Consent and Let’s Talk About Body Boundaries. Books for Littles has also given me loads of ideas and resources. I created charts to support Harper in choosing her communication preference so others will be clear about her wants/needs (see Ways I Can Say Hello). We talk about body parts using accurate language. And we make up songs about our body boundaries and body parts. We talk about secrets and tricky people. I even sent her teachers a letter at the beginning of the year explaining our family’s stance on consent. And our daughter’s sensory profile (she is hypersensitive). As you can see, we are striving to honor our child’s boundaries.

We celebrate secular Christmas in our home, and I’ve had some interesting run ins with Santa. H doesn’t sit on other people’s laps. But she loves Santa. As her advocates, my husband and I have always been in the picture with Santa. The scenario goes a little something like this:

Santa: Oh, how great. You’re coming to get a picture with Santa! Sit on my lap and tell me what you want.

H: [looks very nervous]

Me: H won’t be sitting on your lap. But we can stand next to you. Come here H! 

H: [looks relieved, stands next to me]

Santa: Oh, don’t be shy! Come sit on my lap. 

Me: H won’t be sitting on your lap. Tell Santa what you’d like! [picture is taken and we leave]

So please help me understand something. Why, when children are scared and say no, whether it’s verbally, through visible distress in their bodies, or just generally being unsure, do adults push and prod kids to touch, hug, and kiss them? What message are we sending to our children? 

Last Wednesday, after coming home from school and taking a nap, H was nervous to tell me something. She said, “I’m afraid to tell you.” When she says phrases like this, I know my body language changes. My face shows concern and I get super anxious. I’m working on this. I really, really am. I tried to stay positive and reinforced that “I’m so proud of you for telling me even if you are nervous to tell me.” She confided in me that a child kissed her at school. She said no but the kid did it again. And she was afraid to tell the teachers. And she elaborated that this kid touches everyone all the time.

As a former early childhood teacher, I get this. I had to navigate these situations all the time. Kids are learning their boundaries, and some kids are just naturally more affectionate than others. And many kids don’t have caregivers or families that talk about body sovereignty. So here I am, navigating this as a parent instead of a teacher. As a teacher, I know I’d be asking a social worker friend to come in to teach a lesson, or I’d gather resources to teach a lesson in a developmentally appropriate way myself. It’s so important to foster a community of consent in the classroom.

H is nervous to go back to school because she’s worried it will happen again. So I’m going to speak with the teacher to see how I can support them and support my kid. Because when you are three years old, you need the adults around you to show you that your voice matters. And you deserve to feel heard by your parents…which also makes you feel valued and safe, right? 

Because if I just brush these small incidents off, I’m worried about the message I’m sending my daughter. The continued, generational trauma. Patriarchal mindsets, you know, the whole “Boys will be boys” trope. And the impact these small, seemingly inconsequential situations have on our children’s autonomy and voice. Things I’ve watched my loved ones go through. Things I’ve gone through myself.

Navigating consent isn’t easy. It brings up so many emotions. But I will continue this messy and uncertain work because my kid’s well-being depends on it.