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Yes! No!: A First Conversation About Consent

From the moment they enter the world, young children are learning about bodies, relationships, and feelings. Those of us who care for young children express our love through touch. Being gently rocked to sleep, holding our hands as they take their firststeps, being lifted up to grab something out of reach . . . Research shows that these early experiences can shape how children understand intimacy and care later in life. As we build these foundational skills so that our children can have healthy, fulfilling relationships in adulthood, one critical component is teaching young children to ask and listen for consent. We can model and practice consent in everyday choices, like deciding how to greet a friend or which shoe to put on first. This book provides an opportunity to begin or continue this conversation with your little ones. It’s okay to take a break, leave something out for now, or weave in stories of your own. Before you start, try asking your child: Do you want to read this book with me?


Bodily autonomy means our bodies belong to us and no one else.We each have the right to decide what we want to do with our bodies—how we move them, what we put into them, and who is allowed to touch them or see them. Children develop this understanding when we respect and affirm their bodily autonomy whenever possible. They might not have a choice about whether they’re going to brush their teeth before bed, but we can create space for them to decide if they want to do it sitting or standing. It might be important for them to learn to greet guests, but we can give them lots of options about how they want to do that—perhaps verbally, or with a smile, or wave, or hug, or high five.

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Young children should learn the science words for all of their body parts, including their genitals. Instead of “private parts,” try “middle parts,” a term coined by Cory Silverberg, author of Sex Is a Funny Word. For young children, it’s a smart alternative because, in our society, sometimes we conflate privacy with shame or secrecy. Also, we might want to keep other parts of our body private.We believe our middle parts are beautiful and important parts of our body, just like our elbows and belly buttons.When kids know the names of these body parts, it supports their self-esteem and helps to prevent abuse. If these words are hard for you to say, take some time to practice them out loud in

a mirror.


One of the coolest things about having a body is the natural and joyful experience of pleasure.When children know what feels good to them, they are better prepared to identify experiences that don’t feel good, and then say “no” or walk away.When kids are tuned in to their unique desires, they are better able to tune out the pervasive external messages that try to tell them what they should want and enjoy. Using all our senses to explore and enjoy the world around us helps prepare children to build fulfilling and satisfying lives! Talk with your kids about things that they like (“I noticed you really like carrots. Every time I see you taste carrots you smile so big!”) and share openly with them about the things that make you feel good (“I love the way my favorite sweater feels! It’s so soft and cozy.”)


We live in a society where grown-ups have a lot of power over young people.We decide where they live, who they spend time with, what choices they have about what to eat. Their very survival depends on us. When this power is used unjustly, it feeds into a system of oppression called adultism. This unequal power dynamic makes consent between adults and young people impossible. Children do not have the power to say “no” to us without serious repercussions, so they cannot truly consent to the things that we ask them to do with their bodies, even if we love them and we’re giving lots of choices and really listening. Acknowledging this power dynamic is the first step to using our power over young children ethically. From there, we can practice making only those decisions for them and their bodies that are a part of our responsibility to keep them safe and healthy. We can share our power, when possible, by consulting them in our decision-making and being transparent about why we are making certain decisions.


Turns out, everybody likes different things. Some people like avocados. Some people think they’re gross. Some people love to listen to loud music, and for others that can be annoying or even physically painful. Just because we really like something, we can’t assume another person will also like it, but often young children do just that! It may be their way of sharing whatever joy they are experiencing, and it can be hard when those feelings aren’t mutual. The only way to know what someone else will like is to ask, and we can’t force someone to like what we like. You can lay a foundation for practicing consent by sensitizing children to the fact that people like and want different things. Get curious with one another about what each person in your family likes and doesn’t like. It can be fun to openly explore these differences of opinion at the dinner table, grocery store, or when talking about favorite colors, songs, or toys.


Some of us grew up learning about consent in the form of a “no means no” model. The focus and responsibility were on developing children’s ability to clearly refuse and, in kind, to internalize the importance of respecting others who tell us no. In this book, we’re working toward a “yes means yes” model. Consent is also about learning to ask and listen for yes, and that anything other than a clear YES is a no. A culture of affirmative consent actually makes it easier for people to say and hear “no.” Consent is an ongoing process, not a onetime event, and it feels so good! When any two (or more) people are clearly, actively, enthusiastically, and freely agreeing to engage in any activity together, it’s a really fun time. Try modeling consent throughout everyday activities like bath time (“Can I wash your body or do you want to try?”) and family gatherings (“Can I give you a hug?”). Don’t forget to listen for the responses!


Young children are growing so fast! They have their work cut out for them, learning about both personal boundaries and cultural boundaries in just the first few years of being alive.Toddlers just learned that they have a body and are so busy exploring all the things that it does, and all of our social rules around when and where we eat, sleep, pee, masturbate, run, jump, color, pick our noses, use our loud voices . . . that it can all feel so confusing. 

As their grown-ups, our goal is to support them to learn how to set, respect, and navigate these boundaries without shame.We can explain that in our home/school/community, there are some bodily activities that have certain places and times we do them (Like, “If you need to touch or scratch your penis, you can go in the bathroom, by yourself, and then wash your hands.”). It can take practice to learn howto set boundaries in a clear, firm, and kind way. It’s good for children to hear us say “no” and move away when they touch our bodies in ways that don’t feel good (biting, kicking, climbing, unwelcome touching, etc.).When we model setting our own bodily boundaries, it helps them learn that they can set these kinds of boundaries, too.


All feelings are good, natural, and healthy: anger, delight, confusion, surprise, sadness, curiosity, embarrassment, disappointment, pride, contentment, satisfaction. All of them! It’s our job to help children experience all their feelings in ways that support their own emotional development and their ability to form healthy relationships with others.

One important strategy is to welcome and acknowledge all their feelings without trying to fix them. When we trust children to move through their feelings (with our support, if needed) they begin to develop an internal sense of confidence that they can trust their feelings and their own capacity to process them. For example, when our children are angry that we’ve set a boundary that they don’t like, we can say: “Your arms are crossed and your face is getting red. I think that maybe you’re feeling angry. Is that right? When I’m angry it feels like _____. What does that feeling feel like in your body? What do you think you might need?”

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