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Teaching Children Consent for Empathy and Success

Three girls playing in a sandbox

Do you remember the first time your kindergarten best friend asked you to play? How about the first time a crush asked you on a date as a young teen? What about the last time a friend asked if a particular topping was okay on a shared pizza order?

Each of these scenarios, despite their differences, have one thing in common: consent. Consent is the “permission for something to happen or agreement to do something” (Oxford Languages). The definition of consent by advocates in the sexual assault space includes, “freely-given, informed, and knowledgeable” to help expand the understanding of the permission given. Although consent is largely used in the sexual education realm to express the importance of asking for permission before engaging in sexual acts with another person, consent affects every aspect of life, from friendships, romantic relationships, and school or work responsibilities. 

A child who understands consent will be more likely to ask before engaging a friend in play. This child understands that although he or she may enjoy the proposed play activity, a friend may have different wants, needs, or priorities. A sad friend may need to talk about their feelings before feeling ready to play. A busy friend could want to get some schoolwork or chores done before playing. A tired friend might want to rest, while another might just have different interests to pursue instead. 

Whatever the outcome, asking for consent teaches a child to develop empathy. Empathy, in turn, builds social connection and aids in navigating difficult situations. In 2021, Forbes reported empathy as being the most important workplace skill, citing its contribution to innovation, inclusivity, and cooperation. This suggests that children who learn to ask for consent and develop empathy early might have more success in many aspects of life, not just in romantic relationships.

The question then becomes: How do we teach children how to ask for consent? No age is too young or too old. Consider first teaching by example; ask children before tickling or bestowing hugs or knock before entering a teenager’s room. Be respectful of other adults’ thoughts and feelings and respect boundaries. Not only will the children around you start to recognize consent in action, but you’ll have the opportunity to practice a little bit of empathy too.

Another way to teach consent is through media and literature. When watching television or reading with a child, take opportunities to point out characters who do or do not ask for consent. Does the villain ask before stealing the priceless jewels? Does the love interest ask before kissing the girl? Does the doctor ask before touching to inspect the broken arm? 

Child playing dress up with a green mask and cape

Many times, the answer to each of these questions will be “no.” This may be attributed to fictional character flaws or storyline pacing. However, these situations can be a great opportunity to discuss the difference between stories and “real life.” This gives children a deeper understanding of fiction versus reality, especially in regards to what is healthy in a relationship, platonic or otherwise. This practice also provides stellar examples for what children can do to either ask for consent or how to react when someone does not ask for their consent and boundaries are broken. Also consider supplementing with some books aimed to teach about consent, such as We Will’s “Do You Want a Cookie?” available in both physical and digital for here.

Role-playing may also be an effective form of teaching consent to children. This may be especially helpful for younger children, who already enjoy imaginative play. Give each child a scenario, such as wanting to borrow a friend’s toy or having a secret they would like to tell. Then, give children opportunities to ask for consent. 

Practice both refusing and giving consent, and help children to understand how to take a consent refusal appropriately, without emotional outbursts that may unknowingly encourage coercion. You may also have the child pretend to do something when consent has been given or refused, and then illustrate how to tell a trusted adult, leave the situation, or set firmer boundaries as needed. Through role-play, children become better-prepared to navigate these situations in real life.

Our blog features education topics aimed to prevent sexual assault and uplift communities. Check back regularly and follow us at @wewillorg on Instagram. Like what you read but want more on the go? Watch out for our upcoming podcast, “We Will Educate,” on Spotify and @we.will.podcast on Instagram.

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