I’d like to be able to say that we live in a world where all of our children would and could be safe and happy, without danger from violence or harassment. But, just because I dream of a better future, that doesn’t mean that I can shut my eyes and ears and ignore the realities of sexual harassment, abuse, and rape. I’m a mom, but I’m also a woman. I know that violence happens every day. Women are raped every 68 seconds, but it’s even scarier than that because 15% of rape victims are 12-17 years of age.
I know about consent, but I don’t know that anyone ever explicitly told me what it was. It was an education of innuendo, with a side dose of sex education in school. It’s easy to evolve a sense of consent through movies and TV, but that’s an incomplete and often inaccurate version of consent. And, those big-screen attempts don’t always make it clear that sexual violence is often perpetrated on girls AND boys by someone they know. So, I think about consent and I talk about it with my kids. I want them to be safe, but I also want them to be aware.
What is Consent?
Consent is a “Yes means YES” proposition, but it’s more than that. It should be a conversation that happens first, without any coercion or manipulation, between consenting individuals. It’s not only about respect and compassion, although those topics have always been part of my discussions with my kids. I need my kids to know and understand what consent is and what steps they can take if they don’t feel safe or comfortable for themselves or others.
— Safe Harbors of the Finger Lakes (@SafeHarborsFLNY) September 2, 2021
Just as “Yes” is important, “No” and “Stop” are powerful words too. It’s easy to understand the early concept of “No.” My kids loved to say “No” when they were toddlers. Sometimes it’s just as important to read facial expressions. Kids need to see that the emotions of fear, sadness, anger, and frustration telegraph through body language, even when it’s difficult to speak out.
How To Teach Consent
It’s never too early to start teaching the basic concepts of consent. You can pass on the early concept to toddlers, as soon as they begin to understand the difference between “Yes” and “No.” You already teach kids to demonstrate emotion, but you also need to teach them to all ask for permission to express feelings in a physical way (hugs, kisses, or other interactions). And, it’s a two-way street, with family, friends, and anyone else.
Part of this process is also teaching body autonomy. We teach our kids the proper names of body parts. I still know parents who refuse to use the word vagina or penis with their children for fear that it will lead to embarrassing situations. Yes, kids love to use words, particularly when they see that they can get a reaction. But, genitals are just a part of the body, just like any other. They have a function, but just like every other body part, a child has control and ownership over them. It is correct to use the proper names, but it’s also empowering and unambiguous.
His Grandma was teaching him the proper names for body parts when he was quite young and one day he’s in the shopping cart and we’re in line. He says to the lady in front of us “I got a penis” she just smiled at me and said “That’s nice.”
— Matthew Beaton (@mhbeaton) September 1, 2021
It’s more than just about permission, though, it’s about helping them to imagine what it might be like for the other person. Actions, good and bad, impact others. Kids learn empathy by seeing how words and deeds affect others, but also the reciprocal effect. Early on, it starts out as a question of: “How do you feel when your friend says or does something mean?” But, it’s also a question of translating that into, “How do your (or my) actions affect others?”
That growing awareness and understanding of how actions affect oneself and others can lead to noticing when others are in trouble and helping them. At the earliest ages, it could be just sticking up for another kid on the playground and alerting teachers or other adults to what is going on.
Put It A Different Way
Consent is not that hard to understand, but we can talk until we’re blue in the face and not get our point across. That’s when I start to look for other ways to put the concept of consent. We need to be as clear and concise as possible, which is why the explanation from blogger Rockstar Dinosaur Pirate Princess (RDPP) has been such a hit.
RDPP likens sex to making a cup of tea. You can offer to make tea, but you wouldn’t just make it unless they wanted it. Furthermore, you wouldn’t expect to make tea for someone who was drunk, sleeping, or unconscious. And if they changed their mind about wanting tea, you wouldn’t just force them to drink it.
You can’t give consent if you are drunk! That’s the whole point.There is a brilliant analogy on YouTube called a cup of tea! If someone was drunk and said they wanted a cup of tea but when they got back to yours they fell asleep, you wouldn’t try and pour a cup tea down them?
— Ailsa Walters 💙 (@Ailsawalt) September 1, 2021
RDPP says, “They did want tea, now they don’t. Sometimes people change their mind in the time it takes to boil that kettle, brew the tea and add the milk. And it’s okay for people to change their mind, and you are still not entitled to watch them drink it even though you went to the trouble of making it.”
That entitlement bit is something that our kids are already learning from an early age, or SHOULD be. Just as each of our kids can change their minds, so too can anyone else with whom they are with, whether it’s as simple as a kiss, a hug, or having sex. It’s normal that they could and should change their minds, and they don’t have to have a reason for it.
Keep The Lines Of Communication Open
Yes, you teach children about consent, beginning with the easiest concepts. Then, continue to explore consent in age-appropriate ways. If you, as a parent, don’t answer their questions about their bodies, their emotions, and their relationships, they will find their answers elsewhere. Be direct and honest, but also admit when you don’t know everything.
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It doesn’t have to be all dry and boring, as you discuss changing bodies and feelings. Those discussions shouldn’t be embarrassing. Growing up is natural, not something to be ignored or feared. It happens to everyone. Your kids, like mine, probably ask questions and talk about whatever comes to mind, particularly early on.
You can and should talk about any of the topics that are important to your kids, but explore topics of friendship and other relationships. As you continue to talk, you can also discuss permission-based interactions, including kisses, touch, and sex. With open lines of communication, you can talk about anything they are seeing, feeling, or trying to understand.
And, Yes, What About The Consequences?
I may be jaded, having been a girl all my life and constantly hearing, “Boys will be boys.” But all our talk and our open lines of discussion don’t cut it if our boys do or say the wrong thing at school or in a public space. Locker room talk may stay under wraps, or it might not. Words and actions have a way of coming out in the worst possible ways and destroying lives.
Pinching a girl’s butt, going in for a kiss, saying she has a “nice ass,” or any of the other annoyances could get a slap on the wrist, or they could get a boy suspended, expelled, or even charged with assault. Schools now have zero-tolerance policies. So, even if it was innocuous, done on a dare, or only meant as a sign of affection, they could get in some serious trouble.
This type of incident is nothing new, but more often than not, the touching or kissing incidents involve violence and inappropriate behavior. So, none of our kids can afford to do or say anything that could be misconstrued as assault. But they damn well better not do or say anything without the clear consent of the other person. And even if it’s something that clearly falls outside of the rules, and they all know it, they should still NOT do it. We have this thing called common sense for a reason. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if everyone says it’s OK when the kids KNOW it’s wrong.
It’s not always easy, and you won’t always say the right things, but keep trying. Talk, listen, and learn. Help your kids learn about sexual assault, healthy sexuality, and consent.
How do you teach your kids about consent? Sound off in the comments below.
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