by Tom Kertscher
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Some educators and parents tout the benefits of teaching sex education and consent to kids. Students learn about personal boundaries and empathy, and this knowledge can have a beneficial impact on personal health and safety. Yet, sex education for very young children also can be controversial.
It has been injected as a fear-based issue into politics. For example, in the 2018 race for a U.S. Senate seat in Wisconsin, the Republican challenger claimed that Tammy Baldwin, the Democratic incumbent, “wants to require children starting at age 5 to learn about gay sex!” (PolitiFact rated the attack False.) And the case for early-learning sex education can be made each time new allegations of sexual abuse in a preschool setting emerge. Just in recent weeks, there were several cases around the country: in Washington, DC, Colorado and Florida.
How much knowledge is too much, and how young is too young?
Some experts say that when it comes specifically to teaching consent, sex education for young children can be done without being explicit, and it can help kids learn about boundaries and empathy when it comes to their own bodies and the bodies of other people.
“I understand that that can be intimidating,” says Gideon Kahn, a Harvard-educated kindergarten teacher in New York City, who has also taught preschool in California. “But I think that there are ways of approaching it at early ages that are not (intimidating) and that are developmentally appropriate for children.”
“It’s not about sex, it’s about seeking permission to do something,” adds Marnie Goldenberg, director of youth services at Family Services of Greater Vancouver in British Columbia and the host of sexplainer.com, which aims to help people “raise sexually intelligent kids.”
“For really young kids, it’s really about letting them know that their bodies belong to them, and that they can make decisions about if they want a hug or kiss from Uncle Bill or not. But it is also to help them understand that there are parts of their bodies that are private.”
Why teaching consent is important
States such as Washington are taking steps to require sex education starting in kindergarten. So, what about teaching consent to children age 5 and under? The Harvard Graduate School of Education has promoted teaching consent starting in preschool.
Teaching consent is crucial to safety, says Florida state Sen. Lauren Book, a child sexual abuse victim and founder and CEO of Lauren’s Kids, which doesn’t do sex education but rather teaches children and adults safety strategies and techniques to help protect children against physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
“By helping children listen to their internal guiding voice, we can help them navigate how certain situations, people or touches make them feel. This is all done from a place of fun and not fear,” says Book, who is also a former classroom teacher. “Likewise, we also help adults understand the importance of a child’s personal boundaries and to allow appropriate alternatives like high fives, fist bumps, or handshakes.”
Kahn said teaching consent early is important so that children can be aware of their emotions and the emotions of others, as well as how to express emotions, and how to respect another person’s boundaries when it comes to touching.
And Goldenberg says the teaching should extend to teaching kids about touching themselves.
“Starting when a kid is 3 and talking about when it’s OK to touch their own genitals or not, and about the consent of other people” is age appropriate, she says. “Like, our genitals are private and if you want to touch yours, that’s perfectly fine, but it’s not OK to do in front of strangers because they didn’t get to participate in your decision and it might make them uncomfortable.
“So, that’s a lesson in consent,” she adds. “It’s not just about what others do to you, it’s what you impose on others, and that’s an important lesson for a little person who is like, What’s going on between my legs? We need to teach kids the whens and the wheres.”
Goldenberg recommends that such consent teaching be done by parents and a child’s primary teacher, rather than by a specialist.
“It sends the wrong message to young kids when it has to be a special person come in and talk about this stuff,” says Goldenberg, who adds that using specialists is appropriate for older children, when more details about sex are discussed.
“It really should be the teachers and parents, because part of what we need to model is that this is really normal and natural, and at this stage of the game, it’s not rocket science.”
More on preschool sex education
Article: The Atlantic: “The Benefits of Teaching Sex Ed to Preschoolers”
Article: Washington Post: “It’s never too early to teach children about consent and boundaries”
Article: TalkWithYourKids.org: “The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21”