When my older two kids were in college, my youngest was in preschool. On campus, there were lots of discussions about the importance of consent – asking before touching someone else – and standing up for your right to tell others whether or not it’s OK to touch you and how you like to be touched. It turns out that all those kinds of conversations can be done at a developmentally appropriate level with a preschooler, and lays the foundation for long-term healthy relationships.
Personal Space – My Bubble
It is helpful to teach preschool age children the idea of a personal space bubble – have them reach their arms out to their sides, in front, and behind to make sure they’ve got plenty of space around them and they’re not bumping into anyone or anything. If they can touch something, they need to move a little to be sure nothing is in their bubble.
During coronavirus, we taught our preschoolers The Bubble Song (video) from Magic in the Music. You can adapt this song for personal space: Sing “You gotta keep your bubble, bubble, bubble” 3 times, then “And you gotta ask ‘fore you pop into mine.” As they sing it, they can dance around, reaching their arms out to form their bubbles. Other people taught ideas like airplane wings or bird wings – if your wings bump into anyone, make more space.
This was helpful for teaching social distancing to reduce illness spread, but it’s also just a helpful idea for kids in general. It’s easier for kids to concentrate in group time when there’s not somebody else bumping up against them. It’s easier to keep kids in a line if they know to make a little space in front of and behind them. And it encourages them to be more aware of their surroundings so they don’t bump into the easel or the desks. For teachers and parents, it’s nice to sometimes have a little room to breathe between us and the children. But this idea of a personal space bubble can also lay a good foundation for talking about consent and bodily autonomy.
Consent: Ask Before Entering
Once they know about the personal bubble, we can teach the idea of not invading other people’s bubbles without permission. If they want to hug or kiss someone, or hold hands, or sit in a grown-up’s lap, they can ask first. (If you’re nursing a toddler, you can absolutely request that they ask first before nursing.) For a child who doesn’t use many words yet, you can teach the sign language word for please, and how to show what they want to do.
Teach that when they ask, they have to wait for an answer. The person might answer yes, they would like touch now too! If so, you are welcome in their bubble.
Or, they might say no, or might not say anything – anything other than an enthusiastic yes should be treated as a no. They might also say something like “no thanks, but I’d like a fist bump.” Whatever they say, it’s important to respect that.
And if you still want touch, you could ask someone else, or you could hug a stuffed animal or snuggle up in a blanket.
It’s also worth noting that we all have different moods on different days, and that someone who wanted to hold your hand yesterday might not want to hold it today, and that’s OK.
It’s OK to Say No
It’s important for children to know that their body is their body, and they have the right to say who can touch it and how. If someone asks, it’s OK to say no thank you, or it’s OK to offer an alternative – like “I don’t want to be touched right now but I’d love it if you sit next to me while we draw.”
If someone doesn’t ask before touching, it’s OK to say “please don’t kiss me.” Or “you need to ask before you touch my hair.” If someone doesn’t respect their wishes, or touches them in any way that makes them uncomfortable for whatever reason, they can say no and they can tell a trusted adult.
Other Ways of Expressing Affection
Offer children lots of options for appropriate ways to touch or express affection so that they have alternatives to offer when someone says no to them, or when they want to say no to touch from someone else. We can shake hands, fist bump, high five, wave, bow, jazz hands, blow a kiss, say hello, sit near someone, walk side by side, make them a gift, and so much more.
This is a great place to reinforce ideas about diversity – we have different ways we like to express and receive affection and it’s important to respect that and learn to speak different love languages.
Model these Skills
Be a role model for how to ask for consent – ask your child if they want a hug, ask if they want your help wiping the food off their face, and so on. If there’s a safety issue, you could offer a choice: “you and I need to be holding on to each other in the parking lot – would you like to hold my hand or do you want me to carry you?”
When I wrestle with my son, I ask him if he wants to wrestle. I will stop in the middle of it, and say “is this still OK?” He knows that if he ever says stop, I will stop right away.
Practice these Skills
When children in my class are playing in a physical way (like crawling over each other in a ball put, I’ll occasionally pause the play for a moment and say “is everyone having fun? Are you all OK with this or do we need to change anything?” If anyone looks in any way uncomfortable, we stop the play and make some ground rules. One of the preschools I teach at only has a couple rules: “Everyone gets to play. Everyone gets to feel safe.” These are great ideas for grounding that conversation.
We can teach children that some parts of their body are private – we cover them with clothes when we’re out in public, we don’t touch other people there and they shouldn’t touch us there, and we only touch those parts on ourselves when we’re in private spaces like our bedrooms or bathrooms. Teach that those parts are the ones that are covered up by a swimsuit – bottoms for a person with male body parts, top and bottoms for a person with female body parts.
Teach correct anatomical terms to children: penis, scrotum, anus, vulva, vagina, nipples. Having the correct words helps them communicate clearly with you, caregivers and doctors. (You can also teach that these are not words we run around yelling on the playground.) Learn more about talking with children about sexuality.
Children should know that if anyone ever touches their private parts, asks a child to touch theirs, shows pictures or asks to take pictures of private parts, they should tell a trusted adult right away. Parents might need to touch those parts to teach you how to keep them clean or doctors might need to touch those parts to be sure that they are healthy, but they should always ask.
Children should have several adults who are their “safety net” of trusted adults that they can talk to about any touch that makes them uncomfortable, or really that they can talk to whenever they are uncomfortable with anything or wondering about anything. Ideally I like a child to have five people on their list, including someone who is not in their family – teachers, scout leaders, ministers, soccer coaches… This is helpful when they are children for issues like abuse. It’s helpful when they’re teenagers if they have questions about sexuality, substance use or other complex topics. When my older kids were teens, they each had contact info for multiple adults who could bail them out of any bad situation they got themselves into, and that was a huge reassurance to me.
Talk to your child about their safety net and make sure they know what adults can be resources to them.
Check out my post on great kids’ books about touch, consent, and no means no.