What is Consent: A Valuable Lesson to Learn

In this blog, we will discuss the definition of consent and why it is important for children of a young age to learn about consent and how it could protect them from harm or prevent them from harming others in the future.

From September 2020 the Department for Education introduced compulsory Relationships Education for primary pupils and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) for all secondary students. Arguably in both Relationships Education and Relationships and Sex Education, one of the most important topics to learn is consent and permission. 

What is consent? 

When we hear the word consent most of us automatically think of sexual consent or consent between those engaging in a sexual relationship. However, the meaning of consent is deeper than that. The definition of the word consent is ‘Permission for something to happen or an agreement about something.’ We give consent in different situations and different forms every day from verbal consent for a medical procedure for example, to written consent on a bank form 

Since consent, or giving permission, is a normal part of everyday life, children must learn from a young age what consent is. 

Introducing young children to consent 

We can start having conversations with children about consent from a very young age, so children are empowered to set boundaries and have autonomy over their own bodies. Often children are conditioned from a young age that it is ‘proper’ to do something such as share their toys, kiss grandma, hug their friends, tolerate being tickled by family friends or respond politely when asked questions about themselves such as their age and name. 

Children need to understand that they can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to certain situations and not feel pressured to conform to social norms or niceties. You can practice making consent part of the conversation with younger children by verbalising and talking through certain actions such as if you are picking them up. As they become more verbal you can model how to ask for permission and how to respond when you do not receive permission or consent from someone else. 

 A good example that many people can relate to is being told to kiss or hug a relative or family friend. Many parents will prompt their child to do this without thinking of how the child is feeling. If they feel uncomfortable with physical contact, but are still promoted to preform this physical act then they can become conditioned to believe that even when they feel uncomfortable they still need to do what other people want.

The complexities of consent  

With pre-school aged children, conversations around consent and permission can be difficult to navigate in some cases. A good rule is if everyone is not having fun, everyone stops what they are doing. Examples can include a younger child pestering an older sibling who is getting frustrated, a child being tickled who is laughing but asking them to stop, a child repeating everything someone else says in a silly voice, in all these situations it is vital that children are taught that if   when another person has had enough it is time to stop, even if you are still having fun. 

This also teaches children to start noticing non-verbal messages such as body language and facial expressions as well that will give away when someone is feeling uncomfortable. Lastly, just because someone gave permission once for something does not mean they will give permission every time. Children must learn that everyone has their boundaries, and these boundaries need to be respected. 

Likewise, people’s spaces need to be respected, the lockdowns and pandemics have normalised social distancing and checking with each other before shaking hands or hugging. Now that the restrictions are easing people who may not want others in their spaces feel empowered to communicate this. 

The normalisation of inappropriate behaviour 

Conversations about consent and permissions can change when children attend school, as here they may come across bullying and controlling behaviour. At school it is important that certain behaviour that makes people uncomfortable is challenged, rather than brushed off or excuses made for that behaviour. 

One such example is the well-known ‘boys will be boys’ excuse in which boys’ inappropriate behaviour, such as verbal or physical harassment, is validated. Examples of this behaviour can include pulling up girls’ skirts, stealing kisses from girls, hugging them, and refusing to let go, catcalling, wolf-whistling and physical assault such as hair pulling or even hitting. 

As Jessica Lachenal points out in her article about a hospital worker who told a young girl that the boy who punched her hard enough for her to need stitches must ‘like her’. Phrases and statements like these only serve to teach young girls that it’s okay for boys to hurt them, that it’s a good thing somehow. To the same effect, it teaches young boys that physical harm is a valid way to show affection, that it’s okay to hurt someone else because they are doing it out of love. We need to stop teaching children that this is the way things are. This chain of excuses for abuse needs to stop with us. 

Consent in Sexual Relationships 

As children become teenagers we must expand on the teaching of consent and permission, to discuss relationships and boundaries within those relationships. They have already learnt about reading non-verbal messages and respecting each other’s space and bodies, now it is important to open up the discussion to include enthusiastic consent, coercive consent and what to do when consent is not possible such as if someone is unconscious. 

Everyone needs to be taught that consent can be taken away at any time and that just because someone has consented doesn’t mean they cannot change their mind. Likewise, they may have consented in the past but that does not mean you can assume they will give permission again in the future. 

It is important to start to have these conversations around sexual consent before young people start dating and engaging in physical relationships. While some may believe that is too early, a report from The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that: 

  • 1 in 5 females and 1 in 7 males who ever experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, first experienced some form of intimate partner violence between 11 and 17 years of age. 
  • More than half of all rapes of females occur before age 18; 22% occur before the age of 12. 
  • Adolescent girls who experience relationship violence are more likely to exhibit other serious behaviours such as substance abuse, increased suicide attempts, unhealthy weight control, and risky sexual behaviour such as unprotected intercourse and illicit drug use. 

Sexual violence and peer-on-peer abuse is a huge problem in young relationships, partly because teens are not clear on what consent means, nor do they understand that consent is everchanging and fluid. Having these conversations when children are younger allows them to communicate more effectively when they are older. 


Resources and Support  

  • Life Lessons create open and empathetic whole school cultures, they do so by supporting teachers to deliver evidence-based relationships, sex and health education that fosters respectful peer to peer relations between pupils 
  • See our Peer-on-Peer resource hub to recognise the signs of peer-on-peer abuse 
  • Secure Kids offers resources on how to discuss consent with children and young people Teaching Consent | Safe Secure Kids 
Posted Date

13th April 2022

Georgia Latief
Marketing Content Manager

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