Teaching Consent to Our Kids: A Lesson in Kavod (Respect)

Dr. Emily Aronoff

As a parent and a Jewish educator, there are a few topics about which I am especially passionate – those where my knowledge as an educator align closely with my experience as a parent raising young children in today’s world. For example, a few that I take very seriously are my job to use car seats safely, to read to my kids every day, and to coach social-emotional skills because I know how much each of those things matter in raising healthy adults.

Our sage Maimonides teaches that the mitzvah (commandment) of shmirat haguf – literally, safeguarding one’s body – is a spiritual imperative. I want my kids’ bodies and their spirits to grow and to thrive. Thus, another lesson that I attend to with great care is the idea that all bodies merit autonomy, and that communication about and consent for how (and if) we touch one another is an integral element of every relationship – starting with our young children.

What is consent? Why teach it to kids?

Consent is about asking for and receiving permission.

When we read about consent in the news, it is often directly related to sexual behavior. While it’s important that our children be prepared to understand and navigate complicated questions about sexual consent when they are old enough to begin to explore physical relationships with romantic partners, the strategies that we – as parents and as educators – employ to inform their ability to do so are not inherently sexual in nature.

In fact, young children learn all sorts of boundaries and types of consent: If my kids ask me for more vegetables or their rabbi for more Torah, they will likely be met with enthusiastic consent! They also learn that they need to get permission to go someplace or do something, and they have to ask before they take another kid’s toy. 

As a parent, I try to help my kids learn how to express what they want and don’t want – and I want them to know and have tools to express their limits. And so, at the same age that we teach children they can’t take items from a store, we can show children that kavod – respect for people’s bodies and boundaries (including their own) – is a foundational element of our relationships.  

Teaching consent begins at home.

Children’s first impactful relationships originate at home. As parents and caregivers, we can be conscious of the dynamics and boundaries we model and the example we set about how we treat, describe, and respect all bodies. 

And teaching consent isn’t necessarily difficult or complex: During a recent playdate, for example, my friend sprayed sunscreen onto my 4-year-old child and asked, “Is it OK if I rub it in for you, too? Or would you rather do it yourself?” In interactions like this one – and others that healthfully model consent – respect for children and their bodies prevails.

Indeed, giving, refusing, and communicating about consent is a life skill that we cultivate as often and as simply as we encourage our kids to try new foods and eat a balanced diet or remember to wash hands and cover their mouths when they cough.

Respecting children’s boundaries

Touch is neither a right nor a bargaining token. Affection can be displayed in many forms and can be appreciated when it is offered freely and enthusiastically. But if it is coerced – using guilt or even playfully – then the premise of consent dissolves, which is antithetical to the goal of modeling respectful, safe, and healthy relationship dynamics.  

Teaching and modeling consent means showing kavod for the boundaries children set for themselves. Though views vary amongst generations, it is becoming a new cultural norm for parents to not insist that their children hug or kiss adults if they are uncomfortable doing so. This applies even to close relatives, including parents and grandparents – even if they see one another every day. Normalizing “not touching” is a must, rather then the cajoling that often happens – in which adults insist, using guilt and pressure, for their children to hug relatives (i.e. “Don’t you love Great-Aunt Myrna? Then you should hug her!”)

For adults, especially those who are unaccustomed to or heretofore unfamiliar with these new norms, it can be unfamiliar or even uncomfortable to look back at behavior we considered innocuous and consider that we might have sent an unintentional or hurtful message to a child we love. I cringe when I recall, for example, that I once pretended to cry when a child for whom I babysat refused me a hug. In doing so, I essentially communicated to him that his willingness to express physical affection was responsible for another person’s happiness. That’s not the kind of message I want my children absorbing and taking with them into adulthood.

In instances like this one, when children communicate their preference not to hug or kiss, adults can offer high-fives, handshakes, and “bye-bye” waves instead, communicating to children that their choices are OK and that we respect their decision – while still engaging with them in friendly and age-appropriate ways.

To model consent, start here.

The biggest change you can make to raise a generation of people who respect personal boundaries is this: Ask before you touch.

Ask an infant before you tickle them.

Ask a toddler before you pick them up.

Ask a kid before you give them a hug. 

We must not conflate “manners” or “being good/nice” with any kind of touching

…and then listen.

The Sh’ma prayer, the watchword of our Jewish faith, implores us to listen and to hear. When you’ve asked children for their permission, then listen and observe attentively to gauge their reaction to your question – especially because answer won’t always be verbally articulated.

While it might feel odd to ask a question to a person who can’t yet speak, babies are in fact quite skilled at communicating their needs without words. Indeed, even pre-verbal children can communicate  consent. A baby who smiles at you or extends their arms toward you is probably inviting touch – and if the invitation is not clear, then physical touch does not need to be a part of your interaction with them. (Looking for more guidance here? The Harvard Graduate School of Education shares additional ways to teach consent to kids of all ages.)

I want my kids (and all humans, for that matter) to examine how and if our behavior, language, and attitudes toward bodies can be elevated to be more respectful, loving, and in recognition of the teachings of our tradition, which says that each of us is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine.

I very much hope you’ll join me in practicing and modeling consent – from the very beginning of our children’s lives – and recognizing that humans of all ages and sizes are whole humans who deserve kavod in the form of personal space, bodily autonomy, and the right to personal expression.