Teaching Toddlers Consent: It’s More than Abuse Prevention

The following post is by Sophia Akiko Stephens.

“Can we try to go to sleep?”

“No!”

“Everyone else is resting so that they will have the energy to play later. I think that if you sleep, it will help your body, too.”

“NO!”

I sighed in the dark—this was 25 minutes now—and then retrieved a pillow from the futon by the door. I set it down beside her tiny cot, laid down, and looked at her face. Her sweet blue eyes held a determination that was enthralling to encourage, but awfully hard to put down at naptime. When this 20-month-old spoke, the other toddlers listened, because she was the one who had the words.

Her voice was unmistakable. It was the voice of a girl who was already immersed in the process of not only knowing herself, but knowing what she wanted and how to get it. Whether if she was requesting help, hugs, to be picked up, or have her diaper changed, she had the determination and humility of someone who asks for help when they need it, not all the time. Her determination and independence astounded me and gave me hope.

A child’s capacity to independently make decisions, alter choices, take in alternative perspectives, process directions, improvise, approach and solve conflicts, etc. is endless. I had seen it many, many times during my experience as a childcare provider with older children, but hadn’t realized that even toddlers were capable of this.

This one little girl taught me that capacity and ability are two very different things. A child’s capacity for learning is without limits at this stage, as they are constantly soaking up information from the world around them. These observations are astoundingly acute, and adds to the store of information already in their brains, which then contributes to the next time that they are approached with the same conflict, scenario, environment, person, etc.

Their capacity to understand and acknowledge these things is very much so present, but their ability to physically or verbally act—not so much. Sometimes, this leads to capacity and ability becoming a false equivalent: limited ability means limited capacity. Make no mistake: toddlers’ understanding of their surroundings is much deeper than their ability to express that understanding.

When caretakers mistake children’s limited abilities for a lack of understanding, we fall into the trap of not treating them as people with agency. Some examples of this are:

  • Rushing to pick up a crying child after they have fallen down without waiting to see if they know how to effectively both regulate their emotions and get up

  • Immediately smothering a child in a hug without asking to touch their body

  • Failing to intervene when a relative pinches your son’s cheeks and you know he doesn’t like it

  • Doing things like putting on their boots automatically without asking first whether they need help or not

The moment that the ability-capacity falsehood lost its hold on me was when that same little girl asked me to hold her hand. My heart melted as I experienced the true depths of the trust and love that she had chosen to build with me. My former student did not have the ability to change her diaper herself, but that did not mean she was not capable of asking to have her diaper changed. She has the capacity to choose, to decide, to determine, to lead. Her ability will only grow from here.

Brave children come from being allowed to consistently address confrontations on their own.

For a problem-solver: offer different solutions, but do not finish the puzzle for them.

For a child who can articulate their feelings: when they come crying to you, ask them why and how they would like to address their emotions instead of telling them to stop.

For a child who openly trusts you: listen without judgment or interruption when your child tells you something that challenges your beliefs, even if you disagree. Would you rather know your child for who they are, or just the parts they save for you?

For a girl who can summon help when someone touches her without her consent: do not reprimand her for loudly shouting “NO!”

Young children are capable. They are able. They are infinite in their possibility. As all of us who love children know, there is a point where they begin to teach us back. The most powerful lesson I learned from my students was that all they need are adults who can empower them to trust themselves and give them space to grow. And grow they will.