At a large family gathering when I was a kid, an adult female relative I barely knew gave me a rough hug, then yanked the neckline of my shirt out to peer down and check my breast development.
The adults present laughed. I didn't know what consent was as a tween, but I was horrified.
When I became a parent, I initiated a consent-driven "hugs optional" stance for my kids when greeting friends or relatives.
Consent is a topic that some parents tell me they are afraid to discuss because they assume it means talking about sexual intercourse. That's not the case.
"Consent involves teaching kids about their physical rights, mental and emotional boundaries and how they can engage in the world respectfully and with the ability to honor their rights and the rights of others," said Rosalia Rivera, founder of Consent Parenting.
What are the key things parents should communicate about consent and how soon should these conversations happen? Here are five things parents need to know about consent:
1. Consent is about healthy relationships
To start, parents need to reframe their understanding of consent.
"In middle and high school, when we talk to kids about consent, we confuse them," said Shafia Zaloom, author of "Sex, Teens, and Everything in Between."
Adolescent conversations about consent are typically framed within the context of sexual violence, said Zaloom.
"Those conversations are about power and control and entitlement. We need to educate kids about healthy consent and being empathetic and paying attention to what other people say. What we are aspiring to is teaching kids how to be in healthy relationships."
The Golden Rule needs to be challenged, Zaloom noted.
"A lot of kids don't know what respect really means. Kids are often taught about respect in terms of The Golden Rule of treating others as you want to be treated. But respect means treating others how that person wants to be treated."
2. Start talking about consent early
Consent conversations can start from the moment your child is verbal, advised Rivera. At a young age, conversations will likely center on asking for permission about things such as sharing toys between siblings or friends.
A crucial piece of laying the groundwork for kids to protect their physical boundaries involves using real terms for body parts.
"When a child feels confident about their body and understands their body functions, they don't feel shame and can't be shamed by a potential predator," said Rivera.
Rivera, a child abuse prevention educator and advocate, notes that when kids are able to use correct anatomical language in a normalized, shame-free way, predators recognize that this is a child being educated at home and won't be an easy target.
3. Talking about consent strengthens boundary skills
Talking about consent offers the perfect opportunity to help kids develop boundary skills and empathy.
When talking to kids about hugs, talk about how everyone has different levels of comfort, advises Rachel Brian, author of "Consent (for Kids!): Boundaries, Respect, and Being in Charge of YOU" and cocreator of the viral Tea Consent video.
"Explain that you need to ask before hugging, people have the right to say 'yes' or 'no' and if someone doesn't feel comfortable with a hug, a wave is another option," Brian said.
Identifying options such as the wave instead of hug is a great way to help kids maintain boundaries while still being connected.
"For some kids, roughhousing or tickling or tackling is fun and engaging, and for some kids, it's scary and doesn't feel good. If your kid wants to be involved but doesn't want that level of contact, they could decide to be the referee," suggested Brian.
Kids also need to understand that boundaries can change.
"We have a cultural idea that people can't change their mind, and that is not the case," said Brian.
A key piece of boundary skills involves listening.
"Kids need to practice listening to other people's boundaries. When they really hear what other kids are saying and treat them like a full human being, we are setting them up to not be perpetrators," Brian shared.
4. Consent requires practice by kids and adults
Consent requires practice. "We can't expect kids to be compliant all the time then magically stand up for themselves when we haven't practiced with them," said Brian.
Everyday practice scenarios abound, whether they involve toys, personal space or food.
Zaloom often uses French fries to set the context: Imagine ordering a plate of French fries, sitting down at a table with other people and having people help themselves without asking.
"When people express their disdain over having people pick fries off their plate, the response most often is because people didn't ask. Asking expresses respect. Being disrespected doesn't feel good," said Zaloom.
Parents also need to practice honoring consent with kids.
In a common scenario like playful tickling, parents can practice asking their child if it is OK to tickle them, and then they need to honor when the child says 'stop,' said Rivera. "We need to recognize that kids' voices matter and respect their asks."
5. Talking about consent is a positive thing
There is a lot of negative framing around the idea of talking about consent, but these conversations can be empowering and foundational.
"We have an opportunity to teach kids about consensual behavior now and in the future," said Rivera.
"Parents need to reframe their perspective from shielding their kids from bad things and protecting innocence to education and empowerment."
Fundamentally, consent is a way of showing how we treat each other matters, said Zaloom.
"When we are mindful of and practice consent, it requires us to listen to and think about others, so when we engage with people, we treat them with respect and there's a vibe of empathy. Consent isn't just a moment within a sexual context when bodies are interacting, it's how you approach relationships in general."
Like many aspects of parenting, helping kids understand consent involves modeling.
"We all know that the most effective way to teach anything is to do it ourselves," said Zaloom. Daily practice to help us see, understand and treat one another with respect, integrity and empathy is one of the simplest yet most powerful gifts parents can give kids.
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