5 Tips for Teaching Consent and Boundaries to Kids
Updated: Aug 31
This is a guest blog post by: Christine Babinec, MA, LPC, NCC, author of Want A Hug? Consent and Boundaries for Kids. Read Christine’s bio and my review of her book, below.
Consent and boundaries are the foundations of all healthy relationships. Everywhere we interact, consent and boundaries are being negotiated. When children invent or play a game, share snacks, or take turns, they are using consent and boundaries. When adults navigate decision-making, agree on shared activities, or work on group projects at work, they are using consent and boundaries.
Consent and boundaries are being negotiated every day, all day long, at home, work, school, and in our communities! When we teach kids about consent and boundaries in developmentally appropriate and naturalistic ways, we create the foundation for deeper conversations later on. When we talk with our kids about consent and boundaries in a relaxed, curious, and joyful way, we arm them with awareness about themselves and others.
Open communication about consent and boundaries helps us respect and navigate physical health, cultural traditions and preferences, neurodiversity, disabilities, and just plain comfort level, so asking questions and communicating is always the right thing to do.
So, let’s get started with 5 tips for teaching consent and boundaries to kids!
1. Ask Questions
Start at home by asking the kids in your life what they are comfortable with in terms of sharing, playing, and physical touch in general. For example, ask:
“Who do you like playing with the most with at school?”
“Who is your favorite person to share with?”
“Who do you like sitting next to at story time?”
Be curious and non-judgmental with their answers. Don’t question why they would or wouldn’t want a hug or cuddle from Uncle John or Aunt Jane. Don’t dig deep or ask about specific peers - just listen, accept, and keep talking.
Ask if preferences change from person to person. Do they change depending on a place? Do they always like hugs? Or do they only want hugs from certain people and would prefer a high five or just a smile from others. Again, listen, and you may be surprised and delighted by the conversation.
Ask if preferences change depending on their mood. This helps kids develop more awareness of their emotional landscape. It also helps kids tune into their intuition and how they feel when they are with different people.
Listening is one of the most powerful things we can do for our kids.
Teach kids that their friends may not want or like the same things they do and that is okay. Teach kids that people have different customs and traditions. Teach kids that differences make our world interesting and fun. Teach kids that asking questions helps us know each other and makes everyone feel more comfortable.
Teach kids they can show kindness, love, and affection without physical contact. Provide them many examples such as sharing a special story, reading a book with someone, sharing toys, drawing a picture, or making a card for someone. Kids need to know that love and affection comes in many forms.
Teach kids to never set aside their own discomfort to meet someone else's needs when giving and receiving physical touch. Remind kids they have bodily autonomy- no one has the right to touch them and they do not have the right to touch anyone else - no matter what.
We’ve all heard a lot in recent years about promoting grit and helping kids to learn to tolerate discomfort. That principle can apply to many healthy things, such as trying new foods, doing homework, practicing an instrument, meeting new friends, etc., but never for physical affection.
Show kids how they can communicate their preferences when a friend or family member approaches them. Then, practice with them.
Coach them to be specific, such as:
“No, thank you.”
“I don’t like that, I like this.”
“Can we _________ instead?
“Can I have a fist bump?”
“Will you cuddle with me?”
“May I have a hug?”
“I don’t want to.”
Role model and practice asking good questions, such as, “May I?”, “Do you want to?”, “Can we?”, “Is it okay if?” and “Would you like to?”
Role-play common scenarios from home and in the classroom so kids may become comfortable asking thoughtful questions and asserting themselves.
4. Talk to Friends and Family
Share with loved ones that you expect your kids to ask before they share and/or take food or toys, and especially to give any physical contact to anyone. Ask your friends and family members to do the same.
Prepare adults, especially elders, that you would love them to
ASK before a hug, kiss, or cuddle
WAIT for a response
AFFIRM the answer, then
If anyone objects at not being offered or given a hug or kiss, calmly state you know they want your child to feel safe and comfortable at all times with their body.
If they further protest, reaffirm to the child they can run along to do whatever they want and redirect the conversation to something else.
5. Have A Kid's Back
Remember, kids are not responsible for protecting themselves. So, help kids in a group setting when you see them being approached by an eager friend or loved one. Speak out loud so an approaching adult or child can hear you, "In our house we want everyone to ask before giving someone a hug or kiss, to listen to the response, and respect it. Will you support us in this? Will you ask?"
Don’t ask, encourage, or pressure a child to give anyone any type of physical affection. Kids often have a desire to please the grown-ups in their lives and may set aside their own comfort for them. Many kids also believe they are going to get in trouble if they do not allow a hug or kiss, so remind kids they do not owe anyone physical affection.
Don’t apologize to anyone when a child does not want to hug or cuddle. Apologizing communicates to the child they may have done something wrong or gives them a mixed message about whether or not you support them and their decision. Let the kids in your life know you will back them up and they won’t ever get in trouble when they don’t want a hug or cuddle. Most importantly, when someone touches a child in a way that hurts them, tell the child clearly, “It’s not your fault.” And, please never use the phrases, “Why didn’t you say something?, Do something? Or tell me?”
To be clear, seeking consent and knowing each other’s boundaries is not about stopping love and affection - it’s about making sure everyone feels good, safe, and comfortable. We don’t want to blame or shame anyone for sharing love and affection. But we do want all physical touch and affection to be based in consent and mutual satisfaction. And we want to promote the concepts of consent and boundaries across all aspects of our lives.
Remember, consent and boundaries are verbs, actions! Our preferences can and will change over time. So, let’s remember consent and boundaries aren’t something we achieve once - they are dynamic and require ongoing conversation.
Want A Hug? Consent and Boundaries for Kids Book Review
I've been looking for a book like this for years! I absolutely LOVE this picture book as it's a much-needed resource to open up important conversations with kids about safety, boundaries, and consent. I especially love that it's so relatable for children because it's written in a fun way, in kid-friendly language (without too many words per page), and with great illustrations. The book gives specific phrases kids can use to ask for consent, as well as how to say no when they are touched in ways they don't like, and it addresses the important concept that people can change their minds too. Every parent, educator, and mental health professional who works with kids should have this book!
And here is another review from Eliana Gil, Ph.D., and founder and Senior Clinical Consultant at the Gil Institute for Trauma Recovery and Education: "This book fills a gap that has concerned me for years. We are telling kids to “say no” all the time, which is very important, and now, here’s a book that suggests they can SAY YES, and ACCEPT YES. The book emphasizes that they have rights and can set boundaries, but that they can be affectionate as well. Allowing, even encouraging children to be physically affectionate with each other is a good thing. This is a good read, an important point, and a book that parents and children can discuss together. It will allow them to further help children distinguish between warm and friendly touches and those that are crossing a line."
About The Author
Christine Babinec, MA, LPC, NCC is a Licensed Professional Counselor and National Board Certified Counselor currently practicing in Portland, OR. She is also the author of the picture book, Want A Hug? Consent and Boundaries for Kids. Chris' work is rooted in social justice and she has devoted her career to working with survivors of trauma and abuse. Chris is also the mom of two growing kids!
You can learn more about her at christinebabineclpc.com