Our newsfeeds have been awash with stories about sexual abuse and in some circumstances, rape, in recent times, so you aren’t alone if you’ve already started to think about how you might start tackling conversations about consent, sex and relationships with your kids to help protect them as they grow up.
So how do you go about it? How young is too young and at what age should we start having these critical conversations. As a child psychologist and CEO of Act for Kids, my answer is simple– start early and have these conversations often!
Ahead of Child Protection Week (September 5th – 11th 2021), we conducted research into Australians’ attitudes towards teaching consent, children’s bodily autonomy and when we should be having these conversations with our kids. Shockingly, the research reveals less than half (44 percent) of parents, carers and grandparents have been open with their children about consent, despite 89 percent of adults saying it is the parents’ responsibility to educate them.
We found that there is a considerable lack of knowledge about why it is important to talk about consent, relationships, and body ownership with children in the first five years of their life, despite the early years being crucial to development. Over half (56 percent) of Australian adults believe school age is an appropriate age to start teaching children. This raises serious concerns for children aged between 0-4 as they are most at-risk of abuse and neglect. In 2019-2020, a staggering 11,700 infants under the age of one received child protection services in Australia.
The concept of bodily autonomy continues to be misunderstood, with 69 percent of Australians believing that adults shouldn’t have to ask children for permission before they touch them and only 29 percent of parents admitting penis and vagina are normal in their child’s vocabulary. While naming your child’s private parts with a euphemism such as ‘pee pee’ or ‘jay jay’ is quite common and might make parents feel more comfortable, it can affect your child’s response if they are inappropriately touched. Research shows us when children use the correct words for their private parts it helps them to clearly articulate who can and can’t touch them. We recommend making words such as penis or vagina a normal part of your family’s dialogue.
Worryingly, our research found more than a third (36 percent) of parents with children under the age of 18 doubt their child understands what consent is and unfortunately, we know not everyone is having conversations about consent, sex and relationships with their kids, which is leaving too many children vulnerable.
The early stages of a child’s life are crucial for development and early education is key to empowering children to feel safe. It’s where they grow physically and emotionally, but also begin forming social connections and learning when to seek help if they need it.
My best advice for parents is to start by educating yourself, digest as much information as you can and then begin by using age-appropriate language and conversations with your children.
Teaching children consent from a young age can be as simple as using the correct language for body parts rather than euphemisms, or explaining your actions in your child’s routines, such as bathing. Rather than just forcing them to bathe, try explaining what you’re doing and why it is important. You can also introduce books and resources normalising consent and bodily autonomy to your children and most importantly, give them language and alternatives for when they don’t want to be touched e.g “that’s okay if you don’t want to give Grandpa a cuddle, how about a high five? It’s up to you”.
I also think it’s really critical for parents to monitor their child’s internet usage to ensure they aren’t talking to someone they don’t know and aren’t getting misinformation when it comes to sex, consent and relationships from unknown online resources.
As the National Office for Child Safety continues to develop the National Strategy to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse, Act for Kids is encouraging parents to educate their children on consent and the correct anatomical language for all body parts. This comes as sex offenders were found to be less likely to act on a child if the child knew correct names for their body parts.
This year’s Child Protection Week theme is ‘Every Child In Every Community Needs a Fair Go’ and at Act for Kids, we strongly believe every child deserves a fair go when it comes to protecting their own body.
Act for Kids wants to see a minimum standard set for mandated evidence-based programs in schools to address interpersonal safety and the issues surrounding consent so that children and young people can learn about healthy, safe relationships and safe sex.
At Act for Kids, we welcome the Queensland Government’s decision to review sexual consent education programs in schools and we join other child advocates, including Chanel Contos in calling for improved education for parents and mandated protective behaviours programs in schools to help keep Australia’s future generations safe.
For more on the importance of teaching bodily autonomy and consent to our children tune into Episode 110 of the PakMag Parents Podcast with Dr Katrina Lines and mother-of-four Michelle Derrig joining Bree.