Teaching consent in early childhood

If teaching consent is to be effective, it must be done at a young age. But new research shows parents, grandparents and carers are reluctant to talk about this issue with their children, especially the under-fives, journalist Sue Osborne writes.

New data from Act for Kids found only 44 percent of parents, carers and grandparents have been open with their children about consent and their body, despite89 percent of adults saying it is the parents’ responsibility.

More than half (56 percent) of Australian adults believe it is appropriate to start teaching children about consent and their body only after they reach school age.

Act for Kids is an Australian charity providing therapy and support services to children and families who have experienced or are at risk of child abuse and neglect.

Their revelations raise serious concerns, as children aged between 0–4 are most at risk of abuse and neglect in Australia. In 2019–2020, a staggering 11,700 infants under the age of one received child protection services.

“The research shows there is a significant 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,” Act for Kids Chief Executive Officer Dr Katrina Lines said.

Dr Lines is a registered psychologist with more than20 years’ experience delivering clinical and social services at the individual, organisational and community level.

Bodily autonomy

The concept of bodily autonomy is still misunderstood, with 69 percent of Australians believing that adults shouldn’t have to ask children for permission before they touch them.

“Unfortunately, we know from the research not everyone is having conversations about consent, which is leaving too many children vulnerable,” Dr Lines said.

She said best practice in early childhood services can act as a model for families.

Many a court case has been lost because a child can’t explain properly what happened to them. They use baby words for their body and this is not accepted in court.

“Many families think teaching consent means talking about sex to young children. But it doesn’t mean that. It can be as simple as explaining to a child why you are doing something, for example, ‘we need to have a bath now to stay clean. Is it okay if I give you a bath’?” she said.

Many early childhood centres already teach all educators to ask children, even babies, permission before changing a nappy, and to explain why it needs to be done.

Sharing with families

Sharing these practices with the children’s families could help spread the practice to the home.

Dr Lines said it was vital for parents and early childhood teachers to get in the habit of using correct anatomical terms.

“Many a court case has been lost because a child can’t explain properly what happened to them. They use baby words for their body and this is not accepted in court.”

Sex offenders were found to be less likely to act on a child if the child knew correct names for their body parts.

“Using euphemisms for body parts may seem like a safe and more comfortable thing to do for the adults, but it comes with risks.

“The early stages of a child’s life are crucial for development. It’s where they grow physically and emotionally, but also begin forming social connections.”

Child advocates

Act for Kids has joined forces with 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.

In 2021, Contos began an Instagram poll asking for stories from young Australian women who had been sexually assaulted. After an outpouring of responses, she started the website Teach Us Consent, which hosted a separate online petition to ask for sexual consent education in Australian schools. The petition generated a strong response, with over 44,000 signatures within a month of its launch, along with over 5000 stories of sexual assault.

Dr Lines said the focus on high school children was great but teaching consent and embedding it into Australian culture would only be effective if it started at a much younger age.

Online program

Acknowledging the importance of the early childhood teacher’s role, Act for Kids has developed its own evidence-based protective behaviours program, Learn to be Safe with Emmy and Friends. The education program helps to teach students how to seek help when they feel unsafe.

Dr Lines said “Act for Kids has been delivering this important program to thousands of students in primary schools since 2008, and this year we will also be launching a professional development program for early learning educators to access and teach the protective behaviours content.”

The research by Act for Kids was carried out on a national representative sample of 2008 Australians aged 18 and over in August 2021.

For more information: actforkids.com.au/services/education-services