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

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.



Yes, it might be sufficient . . . or it might not. And yes, 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, or maybe not.

But that middle part? Teaching about the right to bodily autonomy and consent might have the effect of increased reporting which could be construed as a failure of it to have a positive effect, which, of course, would be the exact opposite of what it’s actual effect is.

My point is this question might not be as simple as teach kids about the right to bodily autonomy and consent and the number of incidents goes down.

Is there any scientific or sociological evidence that this parenting strategy reduces rates of sexual abuse?
Leads to earlier discovery of sexual abuse?
Has any positive effects?

might not be the correct questions to ask if you want to know if this strategy is working.


Not only is that what was expected when I was young, it’s expected by some people even today. And not just very old people - I’m talking people in their 50s.Because aside from any fear or concern the kids might have, there was ( and still is ) a fair number of adults who do not believe kids should have autonomy at all - they must hug people whether they want to or not , they must participate in extra-curricular activities according to the parents’ desire, not even being permitted to choose which instrument or which sport. They must eat the type of food and the amount served to them by their parents. ( I do not mean parents must be short order cooks but rather the parents who both fill their child’s plate and don’t allow them to leave the table until they have finished everything on it. It’s not “a take what you want but eat what you take” situation. ) I remember a coworker who didn’t believe her children should have any choices at all, not even which color T shirt to wear to school.

A reminder here that the OP is looking for statistics, studies, or other evidence concerning this. Hypotheses are not what’s called for in this thread.

What questions should I be asking? I asked a very open-ended question. What are the goals of people using this parenting strategy and is this strategy accomplishing those goals? I want to know if this strategy works or if it’s just something people are doing because something must be done about rape culture and sexual abuse and this is something so this must be done. There are lots of examples of people adopting well-meaning child rearing strategies that don’t work, often bolstered by “experts” with no evidence. Parents delayed giving their kids peanuts, taught them that abstinence was the best protection, and that kids should just say no to drugs. None of these strategies work. Is this particular child rearing strategy having any positive effects? Enlighten me if there is some question I should ask that I’m not asking. Then show me the citations that answer those questions. I don’t know about this strategy and I’d like to.

Asking about what the goals are and if this strategy is accomplishing those goals is a fine question. But whether those goals include effects that can be shown by evidence is another story. Sure, if my goal is to decrease incidents of sexual abuse , there might be evidence to show that such incidents have decreased. And if my goal was to increase reporting ( even if the incidents did not decrease) , there might be evidence to show that. But how about if my goal was simply to teach my child a life-long lesson that they get to make their own decisions in general , that they don’t have to kiss Aunt Gracie if they don’t want to , that they don’t have to allow the other person to set the terms of a relationship, they don’t have to let an elderly parent guilt them into living close by, they don’t have to be the class parent simply because no one else wants to and so on. What evidence can there possibly be to tell you whether my strategy met my goal?