Recent political events stirred up a lot of deep conversations, as well as knee-jerk reactions, among parents about the topic of consent – what is it; what does it look or sound like; and most importantly – how do I talk to my kids about it?
Whether your child is two or twenty, it’s neither too early nor too late to start or continue conversations about sexual consent and bodily autonomy.
Starting that conversation doesn’t need to feel scary or intimidating. Teaching your child about consent and bodily autonomy – the premise that each individual gets to make their own decisions in relation to their body – can be as easy as teaching manners and common courtesy. In fact, if you think of consent as a person’s inherent right to protect their own body, teaching your kids to acknowledge and respect their own or someone else’s physical rights becomes as easy as teaching them to say “please,” “may I,” or “excuse me.”
In our family, we began having conversations about “good touch” and “bad touch” when our boys were in preschool and away from us for the first time.
As they got older and began spending time at friends’ homes, the conversations evolved. Then, as they started to show interest in girls, the conversation shifted from how someone else might hurt them, to how they could avoid hurting someone else. Early conversations focused on the kinds of things that were inappropriate for adults or other kids to do or say to them. As they entered late elementary school and middle school, we began to focus on how do you appropriately show interest in someone else and what do you do if they don’t like you in the same way. With a teenager, we focus on how to ask someone on a date as well as the importance of asking someone before you initiate any kind of romantic touch, like hand-holding, hugging, or kissing. Beyond that, we’ve discussed the idea of “locker room” talk and our belief that it objectifies and demeans the subject of such talk and debases the ones talking like that.
One area that we have addressed that I think gets overlooked is teaching your child, not only how to ask for consent, but how to accept and respect any answer given to them, even “No.”
I know that seems basic and obvious, but if it were, we wouldn’t really need to have these conversations, would we? Think about the two-year-old having a meltdown because you said he cannot have candy. Or the ten-year-old who loses their mind and digs a deeper hole of trouble because you take away their video games. Now…amplify that into a twenty-year-old who has always gotten his way, fueled by alcohol, being told by a young woman that she doesn’t want to have sex with him. We all want to believe that our sons would accept that answer and respectfully see that she got home safely. But would they?
If we’ve created environments that promote toxic masculinity where boys are punished for “losing” or looking weak or if we’ve allowed them to always get whatever they want without teaching them how to handle disappointment or loss in healthy ways; if we’ve never had explicit conversations telling our kids that “no means no,” and you accept that answer and then gracefully make your exit, letting that be the end of the matter…then how do we know how our kids will behave in that situation? That’s why these conversations matter and why we need to create an on-going, free-flowing conversation that starts when youthful brain elasticity allows empathy and compassion to develop easily.
I know my approach may seem like a grand oversimplification, but I believe we plant these seeds of respect for all other humans when our children are young and then continue to feed and nurture that basic empathy as they mature.
Personally, I think one of the best ways to approach this conversation with littles begins by talking about hugs. Hugs feel fantastic – if you like them or happen to be in the mood for one. But some people don’t like them. Or maybe some people don’t want a hug at a specific moment. And maybe some people don’t want you to hug them. I love hugs. Physical touch happens to be my love language. I had to learn not to embrace the people I love without asking if it was okay. I learned this lesson in college. I still remember my roommate stiffening, arms at her side, when I enthusiastically embraced her when she returned from a trip home. My feelings were hurt. She felt uncomfortable. Later she explained that her family didn’t show physical affection and she didn’t like it. Had I been taught, at a younger age, to ask permission before hugging someone I could have saved us both some hurt feelings.
You can easily teach your child that just like snacks and toys, you don’t take hugs from your friend. Rather, you ask if you may have or give a hug, just as you’d ask your friend if he’d like some Goldfish or if you may have a turn playing with Thomas the Tank Engine. In that same vein, you can teach your kids that they never have to give hugs or kisses, sit on someone’s lap, or allow themselves to get tickled if they do not feel like it or it makes them uncomfortable. Even by Grandma, Grandpa, or Great-Aunt Edna. Admittedly, as someone raised in the South and taught to respect my elders, I didn’t start out here. My feelings on this evolved after having my own children and realizing they deserve my respect more than any one else. Protecting your children means listening to them and giving clear messages. How can I help them understand feeling uncomfortable with “bad touch” if I force them to receive affection from someone I deem a safe adult in a way that makes them uncomfortable? And if we refuse to hear what our kids tell us in a situation like this, how can we expect them to trust us and tell us if another adult actually abuses them.
Once we’ve established the idea that we do not force anyone to hug us or use their body in ways that make them uncomfortable in their toddler minds, the transition to not forcing anyone to kiss you, touch you, or have sex with you as they mature becomes a no-brainer. Oh! One more thing…Don’t forget to remind your kids that consent expires. One date, one kiss, one sexual encounter does not ensure another one. Clear consent needs to be requested and given every time. I consider it analogous to bumping into someone and saying, “Excuse me.” Just because you gave me pardon yesterday, doesn’t mean I get to bump into you any time I want thereafter. I mean, all of this seems obvious and like everyone should already know these things. The fact that some people don’t see it this way underscores the importance of teaching these lessons to our children. In spite of the pain of old wounds opened for so many I know, I feel grateful current events have led to more parents starting these conversations about consent with their children.