How to Teach Your Child About Consent From Birth

A sex education expert recently caught flack for asserting that parents ask their child's permission before changing their diaper. Here's what other experts say parents should take away from this debate.

mother changing diaper
Photo: Garnet Photo/Shutterstock

In this day and age, it's fairly common to hear debates around how best to promote consent culture. But when a sex education expert in Australia recently weighed in, her take was met with a whirlwind of incredulidy. Deanne Carson, who works for an organization which teaches children about consent, appeared on Australia's ABC news network to comment on Saxon Mullins, whose rape case sparked a national debate on sexual consent laws. Carson noted that parents should aim to teach their children about consent as early as possible.

"We work with parents from birth...Just about how to set up a culture of consent in their homes. 'I'm going to change your nappy now, is that OK?' Of course a baby's not going to respond 'yes mum, that's awesome I'd love to have my nappy changed,'" she said. "But if you leave a space and wait for body language and wait to make eye contact then you're letting that child know that their response matters."

The backlash was swift, as many saw the advice as absurd, since babies can't yet offer verbal consent. Others felt the example mocked survivors by equating nonconsensual diaper changing with sexual assault.

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Carson's example is eyebrow-raising when compared to consent lessons for older kids, like getting permission before hugging another child or feeling free to decline if they don't want to kiss a relative. But Katie Russell, a spokesperson for the nonprofit sexual violence organization Rape Crisis England and Wales, told Newsweek that Carson's message has been misunderstood.

"She's simply making the very reasonable case for establishing a 'culture of consent' in households and with children from the youngest possible age," Russell told the outlet. "This is about both getting parents and carers into positive habits of not assuming consent from their children and about teaching children that they have a right to decide what happens to their bodies. When we know child sexual abuse is so widespread, it's hard to understand why simple, respectful practices like this, aimed at reducing and preventing future harm to children, would be so ridiculed."

Parenting experts agree that there is merit to using verbal cues, body language, and other strategies that teach children about consent from the time they're babies.

"It's important to use the language of consent, so that your child understands that people can't do whatever they want, to or with them," explains psychotherapist and life coach Jasmin Terrany, LMHC, who encourages parents to demonstrate respectful communication from the time their child is born.

And that could definitely come into play in all sorts of one-on-one moments, like a diaper-changing. "If a child is too young to give actual consent, the parent can say something like, 'OK, we're gonna change your diaper now,'" she notes. "The intention is to make eye contact, acknowledge them, and include them in the process and experience, rather than simply maneuver them around like a toy doll."

Terrany points out that this particular experience "doesn't necessarily set the groundwork for understanding bodily autonomy and consent. However, using this respectful, teammate, inclusive style and approach in all circumstances and areas of their life surely will."

Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and family therapist, agrees that the way parents communicate with their children—and even with a nonverbal infant—has a downstream effect. "Have a dialogue about the process, giving the child the sense that they are participating and therefore consenting," she recommends. "They learn that they have their own minds and can think separately from their parent."

With an older child, you might talk about a doctor's appointment ahead of time. "Let the child know what is likely to happen in terms that is beneficial to them, it will help them feel better, etc.," Raymond says. "Then say, 'Is that OK with you?' or 'Do you have any worries?'"

And if a child is determined to hold their ground, and, say, refuse to take a shower or bath, then forcing or threatening them takes away the idea of consent, explains Raymond. "To facilitate the idea of consent, it is better to talk to the child about their right to be dirty, smelly and untidy," she explains. "[Go over] what the consequences for them would be. Then, the child makes a choice." Meanwhile, they're learning about their right to consent.

Ultimately, striking a respectful note in how you interact with your child, regardless of their age, can set a long-term, empowering tone. As Terrany sums it up, "When you actively demonstrate respect through your words and actions, they come to expect it throughout their lives."

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