Any evidence that teaching kids about healthy boundaries and consent to physical contact reduces abuse?

There is a trend in contemporary parenting which recommends that parents teach their kids about bodily autonomy and consent to contact. One way this manifests is that parents should help their kids establish and maintain boundaries about physical contact by being allowed to tell people, like aunts, uncles, and grandparents, that they do not want hugs or kisses. Their parents are naturally supposed to help them maintain these barriers. The idea is that if they learn about consent and bodily autonomy early, they will be more likely to maintain those boundaries later and so will be less likely to be sexually manipulated or abused. There are lots of articles about it but I’m thinking about it now because of this advice column on Slate. I’m wondering if this works. “Experts” get quoted about the strategy and imply they believe it leads to better outcomes but psychology and sociology research is a real mixed bag with lots of unreliable studies treated as definitive. Worse yet, in the absence of data, it seems some people pretend their ideas or personal experience are data. I can’t tell where the research is on this parenting strategy.

Is there any scientific or sociological evidence that this parenting strategy reduces rates of sexual abuse? Leads to earlier discovery of sexual abuse? Leads to better adult relationships? Reduces depression among older kids? Strengthens kids’ relationships? Has any positive effects?

This is FQ. This is not a thread for your guesses about whether it works or is beneficial. I would like citations to studies supported by some science that this works (or doesn’t). Thanks!

Yes, there are lots of studies on this - searching Google Scholar for “does sex education reduce abuse” returns lots and lots of results; spot checking about 10 showed none that were ineffective, and almost all claimed very positive results.

Here’s just one study, the top hit; I encourage you to check Google Scholar yourself for other examples.

Thanks. I appreciate your finding a study for me but I can’t find studies on point. This isn’t sex education. The study you pointed to is of first year university students so it’s not particularly relevant to toddlers and preschoolers. Does teaching toddlers and preschoolers they don’t have to hug and kiss work? I see the common sense appeal to this strategy but I don’t know if it has been validated.

At your suggestion, I looked on Google Scholar for studies about teaching preschoolers about consent and bodily autonomy. The first result is a note from 2021, entitled, “Bodily Autonomy of Young Children: Mothers’ Perspectives of Appropriate Acceptance or Rejection of Affection for their Toddler and Preschool Aged Children.” The first sentence says, “Young children’s understanding of autonomy related to their body and touch has received relatively little attention in the developmental sciences even though children’s understanding of basic principles related to their identity start to take shape during this period.” That certainly doesn’t suggest there is a lot of literature on point.

The thesis says that feminist mothers think that teaching their young children about bodily autonomy and consent is a good idea. Perhaps, but I’m not seeing data.

Unfortunately, I can’t read the whole study or check its sources, which might also be enlightening.

None of the other studies that I found on Google scholar seem relevant.

Could you clarify, are you narrowly focused on the issue of teaching kids about bodily autonomy and consent at a young age, and specifically with respect to relatives?

Because the question of whether kids should learn about bodily autonomy and consent at all is surely not up for debate or any kind of ethical scientific investigation. That’s a function of what we believe about fundamental human rights.

I don’t think the point of this is specifically to reduce sexual abuse of toddlers by relatives. The point is to teach children that they can decide who is allowed to touch them which is something they probably won’t learn by being told to allow people to touch them, even if they never met Aunt Gracie before. And if they can’t say no to these virtual strangers hugging/kissing/pinching their cheeks, how will they believe they can say “no” to the babysitter or their sibling’s friend touching them ?

Yes, I am interested particularly in teaching bodily autonomy to young children. I am also curious about whether there is anything to the particular strategy employed to teach young children about bodily autonomy by giving them the freedom not to hug Aunt Brunhilda.

I don’t think we should accept, “It must be true because we can’t investigate it.” Here is a perfectly ethical investigation. Give 10,000 mothers a pamphlet on bodily autonomy and consent. Ask them if they make their kids hug and kiss grandma. Fifteen, 20, and 25 years later, ask the children of those mothers whether have ever been date raped, whether they were or are in an abusive relationship, whether they would report a date rape to the police if it happened to them, etc.

I would like to know whether anyone who works in this field has actually bothered to study this. People who work in this field are probably better able to design better studies than I am. I’d like to read those studies.

Recently released book that seems relevant - Katrina Marson Legitimate Sexpectations.

The publisher blurb focuses more on the legal insights - she is a lawyer / policy maker in the field, but in a few interviews I heard she gave did talk about the underpinning research on effectiveness of different educational strategies for young kids. And its recent enough to deal with current issues of body autonomy, rather than just condoms and being different.

Just to be clear, its not a sex education book - its about what the role / scope of sex education should be. I expect she addresses it from an Australian perspective where there is a strong governmental role in setting expectations nationally that flow into state education syllabuses, and that the US is a free-for-all mess by comparison, but it seems to hit your question.

Thanks! My local library doesn’t have it but I might be able to interlibrary borrow it.

I don’t have any cites, but with this type of thing there’s an obvious cause and effect issue that comes up. The type of families with parents who are teaching their young children about healthy boundaries are also the type of families who are likely to have functional, stable homes that are less likely to have abusers present.

I get that too. It’s why I hoped that actual social scientists who have thought about these issues would have accounted for that when designing the studies.

But let’s not confuse two things.

In some cases, we would like to obtain empirical data, but it’s tricky to design an experiment to obtain that data, for practical or ethical reasons. The details of parenting strategy - how and when to teach kids about bodily autonomy, whether it should apply to grandma’s sloppy kisses - would fall into that category:

…perhaps you’ve answered your own question there about why reliable studies in this area may be hard to find. And the outcomes for others (potential victims of the children in the study) would be even more difficult to ascertain, all you would have to go on would be actual criminal convictions. Teaching children about their own right to bodily autonomy obviously goes hand in hand with teaching them to respect the autonomy of others.

But at a more fundamental level, the question of whether kids should learn about bodily autonomy and consent at all does not derive from empirical data, it derives from ethics. Children should learn about it for the same reason that they should learn that torturing pets is wrong. Bodily autonomy and consent is a fundamental human right that we all should understand. Recent increasing emphasis is not just trendy parenting, it’s because of our increasing awareness that so many adults are ignorant of (or willfully ignore) this right.

Moderator Note

I think this is a valid point, but the OP is specifically looking for scientific evidence either for or against any positive effects and wishes for the topic to be restricted to only this. We are starting to stray a bit from the topic as specified by the OP.

I’m sensitive to that, but as you can see from the rest of my post what I was trying to address overall was what kind of empirical studies we can reasonably expect might exist.

If that is out of bounds, then although this is FQ you’re effectively forcing everyone to grant a false premise that allows the thread to imply a false conclusion: that if there exists no compelling empirical data (on rates of abuse, for example) to support teaching kids early about bodily autonomy and consent, then such teaching is not justified.

But having made that point - I’ll bow out of this. (I didn’t think it was worth starting an ATMB thread just for this, I hope you don’t view this as disputing moderation.)

How long has this been a trend in parenting? It might be that there aren’t any studies yet simply because it hasn’t been long enough yet for such a study to be possible.

And it’s also always very difficult to perform such a long study. Even aside from funding agencies and/or researchers wanting topics that can get more immediate results, it’s hard to keep track of the subjects for that long.

I’m not sure when the idea arose. The first time I heard of it was from a friend who works as a guardian ad litem for abused children. That was about five or six years ago but naturally, she is on the vanguard of issues like this. I have been reading about this parenting idea frequently lately and I was wondering if this was just a fad or it there is some research to suggest it does something. It’s possible there are no long term studies but there could be shorter term studies that might have some results. Again, I just don’t know. I was hoping people here might be able to point me in the right direction.


I’m curious what the alternative is. Are we supposed to let relatives forcibly hug our children? If my child doesn’t want a hug from someone, I’m not going to force them to do it, that has more about caring for my child’s general well being than specifically about body autonomy. I’m also unsure on how it physically plays out. If my child doesn’t want a hug from someone they will most likely be hiding shyly behind my leg, the only way I could force them to hug Aunt Gertrude is if I physically pull them off my leg and hand them over. Why would I do that? It seems unreasonably cruel.

One thing I do that is specifically about body autonomy is if I’m tickling one and she says “stop” or “no”, then I stop and I wait for them say “again” or some other encouraging signs.


Umm, how does this work? Does asserting one’s bodily autonomy stop someone who intends to violate that autonomy like a crosses stop vampires?

I’d think, at best, what you would get is the children of those mothers being able to clearly articulate their knowledge that their date rapes were a violation of their bodily autonomy and consent.


That’s what was expected in my youth, from what I recall. Such contact was considered so obviously harmless and from a position of love that of course refusing would be paranoid at best and insulting to the hugger at worst. So of course the kid has to suck it up and be hugged unwillingly; their fear or concern is obviously unjustified and can be ignored for the desires of the adult.


Crosses against vampires, wtf? Does it not occur to you that a potential victim who is more assertive might say “no” much more forcefully and unambiguously, which alone may often be sufficient; and that they might be more inclined to seek the help of others if those rights are still physically threatened? That it might be more difficult to coerce them into silence after a first instance? Or that a child who learns about the right to bodily autonomy and consent might also be less likely to grow up to become the date rapist?

I mean, OP asking for empirical data about the most effective and appropriate way to teach about bodily autonomy and consent is quite reasonable. But I’m struggling to see why you have difficulty with the plausibility of the hypothesis.