How to Teach Consent and Boundaries to Toddlers

boundaries and consent"
boundaries and consent
Source: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

Many parents today grew up in a time when “boys will be boys” excused many behaviors that pushed the boundaries of consent. As a mother of boys, I feel responsible for teaching them about consent so they respect the boundaries of others, and I also want them to feel empowered to set their own boundaries. Like many other aspects of parenting, I want to make sure that my children have a good foundation for understanding consent. 

When I reached out to Rachel Tomlinson, an expert in child development, registered psychologist, and author, to talk about teaching consent to young children, she emphasized the importance of early education in order to help them feel comfortable and in charge. She said this is why it is essential for parents to set boundaries for children—even though other relatives may not be on board—to protect your child and their consent in the way you allow others to interact with them.

Here are a few ways to teach consent and boundaries to toddlers.

Meet the expert
Rachel Tomlinson
Registered Psychologist and Child Development Expert
Author of Teaching Kids to be Kind and A Blue Kind of Day

Give Them the Correct Vocabulary

When talking with my children, I have always made sure to use technical terms for their genitals. As a survivor of sexual abuse, it is important for my children to be able to identify their body accurately in case something were to happen.

Try to avoid having cutesy names for genitals and other body parts. No one goes red and coy when we talk about elbows; we need kids to feel the same comfort about talking about penises, vaginas, and vulvas so that they can accurately and safely express consent about their bodies,” Tomlinson said.

When we avoid nicknames and teach our children how to say no, we are empowering them to set boundaries that they are comfortable with.


teaching consent and boundaries

Source: Cottonbro | Pexels


Model Consent

When I saw that my 4-year-old wanted to constantly pet and carry around our cat and even tried to hide the dog in his room, I realized that this was the perfect opportunity to teach consent and boundaries in action. While we already talk a lot about our bodies and the right to privacy, safe touch, etc., we have had limited opportunities to work on consent with other individuals. While our animals cannot speak, they are very comfortable letting my son know that they want affection or if they need space. To help reinforce consent, I make sure to show my son the importance of soft and gentle touches. We also practice knowing when to stop immediately if the animal shows they are uncomfortable.

It models the behavior I want him to use when he matures and starts exploring romantically with a partner. I believe sometimes children need emphasis on the importance of consent and that they need to practice getting comfortable with people (and animals) saying no. They need to learn the difference between reluctant and enthusiastic consent, where another person unquestionably wants to be touched, kissed, or more.


[Kids] need to learn the difference between reluctant and enthusiastic consent, where another person unquestionably wants to be touched, kissed, or more.


When I asked Tomlinson about this method, she had a lot to say. I think this can be an excellent way of demonstrating boundaries, particularly because children have to start paying attention to non-verbal body language to take their cues about whether the animal wants to be held, carried, etc. Animals don’t have a voice, but they can certainly show when they are uncomfortable, scared, etc. So children really need to look carefully to identify whether their games, noise, and touch are acceptable,” she said.

“Another great reason that pets are great for teaching boundaries is that animals are vulnerable. They are often smaller than our children, so we can really get them empathizing and considering how to use gentle touch, be responsible, and be respectful in the way they engage. Children are often too enthusiastic and can become excited and accidentally rough, or they need to learn how to correctly and gently play. The carrot is that if they play in the right way for that animal, the animal will most likely want more attention and spend more time with your child, which will then perpetuate the kind of behavior you want your child to demonstrate. These are lessons that our kids can apply to people in their lives,” Tomlinson said.


teaching consent and boundaries

Source: Patty Brito | Unsplash


Practice Limits

While simply teaching a child vocabulary and telling them about consent can be helpful, it is also important to give them an opportunity to practice with an adult. For many parents today, we have had a lot of experience having to hug or kiss a relative we weren’t comfortable with. We need to create safe opportunities to practice telling others no, including beloved relatives like a grandparent.


We need to create safe opportunities to practice telling others no, including beloved relatives like a grandparent.


You can do this by setting limits with your own body that you are teaching your child to respect and having them practice setting limits too. For example, when I am exhausted and touched-out at the end of the day and one or both of my boys want to climb all over me, I tell them that I do not want to be touched. This is important to me because it shows them that even loved ones will have moments where they need space, and it doesn’t mean they did anything wrong. I also give my sons opportunities to tell me no and push back once in a while so they have practice getting the confidence to tell even me, their mother, to not tickle them or kiss them. 

“Children need to feel in control of their world, and sometimes parents need to feed them, wash them, or take care of them in various ways,” Tomlinson said. “But it’s important to give children opportunities to have a choice and have a say in safe and appropriate ways. Let them choose their clothes, give them a choice of recipes for dinner and let them pick, or get them to be in charge of family movie night and select the movie and snacks.” 


By creating a safe environment to practice these interactions, children will have a strong foundation to rely on in the real world, among the pressures of friends and others. While I wish I could protect my children from everything, it is important to make sure that they are protecting themselves and respecting the boundaries of others without feeling entitled to keep going. 

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