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Teaching Kids the Value of No: Consent Matters at All Ages

  • Anyone who has interacted with children can relate to the frustration that comes with being asked, begged, and pleaded with for something over and over.

Kids are notorious for not taking ‘no’ for an answer. They wear us down by the constant questions they repeat until we give in.

As a mom, I’m guilty of this. “Can I have one?” “No.” “Please!” “No!” “Just one?” “NO!”  “I promise I won’t ever ask you for one again!!!” And I relent. As a therapist, I worry about what I’m teaching her about the meaning of the word ‘no.’

Parenting is hard. Even with the greatest kid and the most supportive partner, we mess up in a myriad of ways. We lose our cool and yell. We use television as a babysitter too often. We forget about concerts and parent-teacher conferences. And many times we inadvertently teach them that when they say ‘no,’ it doesn’t matter and will not be taken seriously.

Children learn what is acceptable and what is not by seeing how we treat them and how we treat others. Parents and adults interacting with children need to be aware of the messages we are sending them. They need to know that their voice matters and when they say no, it will be taken seriously, so when this doesn’t happen they will be aware it’s wrong.

We know we want our kids to be empowered, strong, and to respect themselves and others. How do we get there? Here are three simple things you can do to teach your child that their voice matters.


  • Let kids know when they have a choice in a situation, and when they don’t. For example, they may say ‘no’ to getting a vaccination and they will still have to get a vaccination. Explain why. If possible, let them decide something like which arm the shot will go in or what color bandaid or sticker they get. Later, give them something they can decide on, such as what they’d like for dinner.
  • Be a good example. Let them hear you respect other people’s ‘no’s .’ And allow them to hear you state your ‘no’ and be firm about it in appropriate situations such as pushy salespeople or persistent requests from family members. This even applies to times when you yourself are touched out and don’t want to be climbed on. A phrase such as, “Right now I really need some physical space. I love you and promise to snuggle after dinner,” can go a long way. You are acknowledging their need while respecting your own.
  • Inform grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives that if your child doesn’t want a hug or a kiss or to sit on their lap, that is to be respected at all times. Intervene when needed. Imagine how confusing it is for a child to be told that some people are allowed to hug and tickle and kiss them, but others are not.

As children grow older, they will be in situations where people will push them to do things they don’t want to do, such as hazing rituals, unwanted sexual advances, alcohol or illegal drug use. Knowing how to say ‘no’ forcefully, and what to do when their ‘no’ isn’t respected, such as walking away or getting help from a trusted adult, is a skill that will last a lifetime.

So when I tell my child no and she asks again, I’ll try to say something such as, “I know this is something you really want, but I’ve made my decision. You need to respect my ‘no’ and not ask again,” or “this is really important to you. I can tell because you keep asking. Let me think about it some more. But when I give you my answer, I need you to respect it and not ask again.” She will roll her eyes at me, but she listens. And I hope she understands that her ‘no’ needs to be respected, but that she also needs to respect the ‘no’ of others.

Saying ‘no’ and obtaining consent is about more than just sex. It’s about control over one’s body. It’s about boundaries and self-respect. It’s about knowing what to do when someone disregards your choice and forces you to do something you don’t want to, physical or otherwise. We all deserve to have our voices heard and respected, and it can start in childhood.



Teaching Kids the Value of No: Consent Matters at All Ages

Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S

Jenise Harmon, LISW-S, is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Columbus, Ohio. She works with individuals and couples, and specializes in relationship counseling. She's now offering online counseling for residents of Ohio. Stay Connected . Follow her on twitter; and connect with her on Facebook.

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APA Reference
Harmon, J. (2019). Teaching Kids the Value of No: Consent Matters at All Ages. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from


Last updated: 23 Aug 2019
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