Beyond “No Means No”: Teaching Consent to Young Kids

A couple of months ago my son was playing sword fight with one of his friends.  She and he were running around the living room, yelling, screaming, whooping it up and having a wonderful time.  After a bit however, I noticed that the sounds were beginning to change.  I heard his friend say things like, “I think I’m done now,” and “Not so hard!” and “I said stop!”  My son–four years old and very invested in his own imaginative game–was pretty much oblivious to her reactions.  So I poked my head into the living room and called him over.

“Hey,” I said, “It doesn’t sound like {R} is having fun.  You need to ask her if she wants to keep playing this game.”

So he went over and asked…and she said no, she was done.  He came back over to me and sat down in my lap, very disappointed.  I asked him what was wrong.

“Mom, we were playing swords and having fun and I really wanted to keep playing!” he said.

“It doesn’t matter; she said she was done.  She wasn’t having fun anymore.  You need to play a different game,” I said.

“But last week we played swords just the same, and she had fun then!”

“It doesn’t matter–she said she was done today.”

“But it’s not fair; I like the game we were playing! I don’t want to stop!”

“It doesn’t matter. She said no. The game is over, so you need to find a different way to play that you both can agree on.”

My kiddo then walked back over to his friend, a brief discussion ensued, and they agreed on a new game: ninjas, which involved fighting imaginary bad guys instead of fighting each other. As I watched them play and thought about the encounter, I had a crazy thought come to my mind. 

I pictured my son as a young man, and imagined the same conversation with a different focus, and realized that I had just had a conversation with my four-year-old about consent.

As a mom of two boys, I have a confession to make here.  I have occasionally had the thought that I was glad I would never have to have that very uncomfortable conversation with a daughter.  You know the one that I’m talking about. It’s the one that goes, “Of course it’s never your fault if you are assaulted, but don’t walk alone at night/wear sexy clothes/drink too much/dance too close.  Don’t give the guy the idea that you might be looking for something more.  Make sure to protect yourself.  But of course…it’s never your fault.”

I don’t have any daughters, so I don’t have to have this conversation.  As I reflected on my conversation with my four-year-old, however, I realized that there is just as important a conversation that I (and my husband) need to be having with my boys.  It’s the one that goes beyond, “No means no.”  It means talking about how, “Maybe…” means no.  “I guess,” means no.  “Let me think about it,” means no.  It means silence may mean no.  It means teaching my boys that in the context of physical relationships, that anything other than a sober, vocal, enthusiastic, “Heck YES!” means no.

It is strange to think about these conversations as my boys are only now 5 and 1, but now is the time that I am laying the groundwork for how they will view future relationship matters. 

I want them to recognize that consent is a conversation, and that it is always evolving and never something to be taken for granted.  Just because someone was okay with something yesterday, doesn’t mean they are okay with it today.

Thinking about and using language about consent doesn’t have to be complicated, and the conversations can start very young!  Here are a few ways you can think about consent with young kids in your own home. 

3 ways to teach young boys (and girls) about consent:

1. Get a verbal “yes” for physical interaction.

We do a ton of physical play in our house.  My oldest son loves to jump, wrestle, run, and crash.  However, as much as possible we try to model asking permission for physical interaction and waiting for a verbal “yes” before proceeding.   For example, when lying down to snuggle my kiddo at night I will ask him, “Do you want me to scratch your back?” and I’ll wait for him to answer before I do.  If we are playing tickle fight, I’ll check in periodically.  “Do you want to keep playing?” I will ask.  Sometimes he says yes and we continue, and other times he says no, and we will move on to a different game.

2. Set your own physical boundaries.

When my kiddo is playing too rough, or tickling too much, or I just don’t feel like being climbed over at the moment, I make it a point to say so using very direct language.  I tell him, “I don’t like the way you are touching me right now. Please stop.”  This language is not accusatory or shaming, but simply stating how I feel in a way he can understand, and modeling the need to respect the boundaries of others.  I also think it helps him to learn to empathize with others regarding their perceptions of physical interactions.

3. His consent matters, too.

Even though the majority of sexual assaults on college campuses happen to women, it is estimated that 1 in 16 men will be sexually assaulted while in college.  Just like I want to teach my son that he needs to look out for the feelings of others in physical interactions, I also want him to know and understand that his consent is also an important part of the equation.  For this reason, we get his permission for physical interactions.  He is not required to hug or kiss grandma, grandpa, or anyone else if he doesn’t want to.  If he tells me to stop a tickle game or wrestling match, I respect his request.  If he tells his dad that he is done playing chase, the game stops.

Boy moms (and boy dads) out there, we have an important role to play in these conversations.  If we do our job well, we can help change our culture and the discussion of consent.  Ideally, conversations about consent will become so commonplace that the next generation of girl moms won’t have the need to have that awkward double standard conversation that our mothers had with us.  And that, my friends, would be a wonderful thing for us all.



Sarah Bengtson
Sarah is a proud Iowa native who currently lives in North Liberty with her husband and 2 sons. She grew up in rural Benton county and moved to the Iowa City area in 2005 to attend graduate school at the University of Iowa in Physical Therapy. Now she balances raising two growing boys with a work as a pediatric physical therapist. Outside of work and family, Sarah loves music, playing her cello, running, baking, crochet, church activities, and cheering for the Hawkeyes and the Minnesota Vikings.


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