When Teaching Sex Education and Consent, How Young is Too Young? - Early Learning Nation

When Teaching Sex Education and Consent, How Young is Too Young?

A group of three children smiling broadly

by Tom Kertscher
See below for tips and ideas for your family and community

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.”

Marnie Goldenberg
Marnie Goldenberg

“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.

Lauren Book
Lauren Book

“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.”

Tips from Gideon Kahn on teaching consent to children 5 and under
  • Model simple and consistent language for students to use in response to physical contact, whether a friendly hug or an unwanted touch. Vocabulary should be as simple as: “No.” “I don’t like that.” “Don’t touch my body.” “This is my space.” When necessary, be more explicit about boundaries related to genitals and sexuality. Don’t shy away from difficult topics.
  • Have regular class meetings with the goal of developing emotional vocabularies and the student’s ability to be aware of, express and regulate emotions (emotional intelligence). This can take many forms, including explicit instruction, visual aids, children’s literature, active listening activities, songs, and games.
  • Make time for sociodramatic play. Play can be open ended or planned beforehand. Teachers can scaffold dramatic play and lead reflections afterward. This can encourage perspective-taking and emotional awareness and regulation. Students also learn to negotiate challenging social situations.
Tips from Lauren Book

Book’s Lauren’s Kids organization offers “Safer, Smarter Schools,” a sex abuse prevention curriculum for pre-K through high school. It “contains educationally sound and developmentally appropriate content for children, parents, teachers, and administrators, aligned to state and national education standards.”

Tips on teaching consent to children ages 1 to 5

From an article by four experts on TalkWithYourKids.org

  • Teach children to ask permission before touching or embracing a playmate
  • Teach kids that “no” and “stop” are important words and should be honored
  • Never force a child to hug, touch or kiss anybody, for any reason
  • Encourage children to read facial expressions and other body language: Scared, happy, sad, frustrated, angry and more
  • Talk about gut feelings or instincts. Sometimes things make us feel weird, or scared, or yucky and we don’t know why.
Tips from Marnie Goldenberg on teaching consent to older children
  • People have the right to say no AND they have the right to say yes. Sometimes communicating either is uncomfortable. It is a time to be brave and be sure your interests are heard and understood. It’s also the time to be brave (and respectful) and hear when someone says no.
  • People sometimes want and don’t want something at the same time. It’s a good idea to try and think through the wants (I’m horny) and don’t wants (I’m nervous), so that you are clear about the limits of your consent in any situation. Also, when some is giving mixed messages (they said yes but they are just lying there, not enthusiastically involved) stop and talk. Appreciate that they are telling you something different.
  • The same time people are first exploring their sexuality with others often coincides with their exploration of drugs or alcohol. Try to keep the two separate. If you don’t, look to go slow, start with a little, have a buddy, discuss potential situations that might arise and what help you might need.

More on preschool sex education

Article: The Atlantic: “The Benefits of Teaching Sex Ed to Preschoolers”

Video: The Mother Company’s “Bossy of My Body,” suggested by Harvard Graduate School of Education’s “Usable Knowledge”

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”


Milwaukee journalist Tom Kertscher was a 35-year newspaper reporter, finishing that career at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Now a freelance writer, his work includes fact-checking for PolitiFact and sports reporting for the Associated Press. His reporting on Steven Avery was featured in Making a Murderer. Kertscher is the author of sports books on Brett Favre and Al McGuire. Follow him at TomKertscher.com and on Twitter: @KertscherNews and @KertscherSports.

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