The argument for going beyond this phrase to teach consent as a life skill to empower and protect our kids
I wish teaching our children consent were in fact as simple as teaching them to freely say ‘No’ while also teaching them to respect someone saying ‘No’ to them. While there is still great value in learning this skill, the phraseology has its origins in the anti-rape and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s and is an oversimplification of the importance of consensual and mutual respect in all human interaction. As pervasive as misogyny and sexual harassment is amongst teens, the messaging of the “no means no” campaign is insufficient. Dr. Jennifer Lang, gynecologist and author of “Consent. The New Rules of Sex Education: Every Teen’s Guide to Healthy Sexual Relationships,” believes that consent is “perhaps the single most important thing to learn about in sex ed.” The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reported in 2018 that 23.3% of teen girls shared being sexually assaulted by a current or former intimate partner. This statistic gets at the heart of the necessity for young people to learn about what it means to have the capacity to give consent enthusiastically and that learning to set and respect boundaries is a necessary life skill to help us with both our intimate and non-intimate relationships.
Harvard Graduate School’s report, The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment (2019), shares data taken from a national survey of 3,000 young adults and teens. Their findings show how relatively ill-prepared young people are to engage in open communication in their intimate relationships. The report shows:
- Respondents, aged 18-25 years old, revealed that a majority had never spoken with their parents about “being sure your partner wants to have sex and is comfortable doing so before having sex”(61%); assuring your “own comfort before engaging in sex” (49%); the “importance of not pressuring someone to have sex with you”(56%); the “importance of not continuing to ask someone to have sex after they have said no” (62%); or the “importance of not having sex with someone who is too intoxicated or impaired to make a decision about sex” (57%).
- 58% of respondents had never had a conversation with their parents about the importance of “being a caring and respectful sexual partner.” Yet a large majority of respondents who had engaged in these conversations with parents described them as at least somewhat influential.
- 70% of the 18 to 25-year-olds who responded reported wishing they had received more information from their parents about some emotional aspect of a romantic relationship.
- 65% of respondents wished that they had received guidance on emotional aspects of romantic relationships in a health or sex education class at school.
- 76% of survey respondents had never had a conversation with their parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others.
As an Educator I often have conversations with students surrounding boundaries and consent while simultaneously navigating those same conversations with my own children. Even as a Health Educator who teaches consent in terms of social emotional development and teen sexual health, it is always in the forefront of my mind that as a parent I should be educating and preparing my kids for healthy, happy interactions when they are little so that they can have safe and respectful relationships as they age.
I try to think of ways to model this behavior in my own interactions while intentionally having conversations with them that admittedly are at times emotionally charged and awkward. Oh goodness have they been awkward! However, knowing that these conversations can help keep them safe, help them to develop behaviors that will allow them to accept rejection and communicate their own needs, helps me work through my own awkwardness to power through.
So, how do we as parents teach consent? Author Katie Hurley, LCSW in her article for Psycom outlines four necessary steps to talk about consent with our kids. She reminds us that it’s never too late to start these conversations and though they can be awkward and uncomfortable they “play an integral role in helping teens understand and internalize the importance of respect and caring in romantic relationships.”
Step 1: Teach boundaries
- Children of all ages need to develop a mutual respect for each other’s boundaries, as well as an understanding of their own.
- They should know that boundaries can shift and be revoked.
Step 2: Define and model consent
- Share that consent is a freely and openly given “yes” to something and requires everyone to understand how each person feels about it.
- Use phrases like “Do you want to…?” or “Is this okay with you?” when interacting with your own children and respect their responses and communicate how you are respecting them and their boundaries. For example: “You’ve had a bad day. Do you want a hug?” “Okay, I hear you don’t want a hug. Let me know when you do.”
- Read your child. Teach body autonomy by respecting their boundaries and never forcing, bribing, or pressuring them to do anything involving their bodies and someone else. For example: “No, go ahead and give Grandma a hug, she asked you to hug her!”
Step 3: Discuss respect and trust building
- Show how to communicate in loving and respectful ways without using pressure or coercion.
- Modeling or sharing scenarios of what this looks like.
Step 4: Help them talk specifics
- Particularly with teens, help them understand their own level of comfort by having open and ongoing conversations with them. Taking the opportunity to watch a movie or show with them and using what is shown as a starting point to help them gauge their own level of comfort in their current relationships or in future ones. This is often one of those awkward moments but potentially a wonderful learning moment for you both.
- Remind them that our likes and dislikes can change and evolve over time but communicating those feelings helps us also better understand ourselves.
Just like consent itself is an “ongoing process of discussion and boundaries,” my conversations with my own kids are ongoing and evolving. I am working on teaching them how to communicate needs and wants relevant to their age and development. In reality, teaching consent is teaching a life skill and is very much applicable to most interactions children of all ages experience on a daily basis. Teaching our children early on about how to speak up to communicate their own boundaries, while freely respecting the boundaries of others, will help normalize this process when they do become sexually active.
Written by Helen S. Baker-Health Educator-Candor Health Education
Hurley, Katie, LCSW. “#Metoo: understanding and teaching what consent means.” Psycom, February 1, 2020. https://www.psycom.net/how-to-talk-about-consent.
Jennifer, L. M. (2018). Consent: The new rules of sex education: Every teen’s guide to healthy sexual relationships. Althea Press.