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Consent . . . When Should You Start Talking to Your Kids About It?

Spoiler Alert: Even parents of preschoolers should keep reading!consent

When I was quizzing my friends and my feminist teen about what parents of teens want or need to know, one of the big topics that came up was consent. It was something that I had not really thought much about. I asked my teen how she had heard about it and she said the Internet. Side question: Is this a parenting fail?

The first thing then is to know what consent is because until I was driven to write this article I had not examined it much. From the dictionary, it is permission for something to happen. In the sex education context, it is an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity.

I had never even thought about the idea of consent. Now that I have researched it, it seems like common sense. But like many common sense things, some people just don’t know much. Talking to your children about sex may be hard. It may be embarrassing. And beyond sharing your beliefs about teen sex and the basics of sex so the kids understand, many parents don’t do much else. Consider this a recommendation to add consent to the list of important things to teach your kids.

When I first started thinking about this article, I was primarily gearing it to parents of teens. After all, that is when sex becomes a big issue. However, my very wise teen was the first one to point out to me that consent is so much more than saying “yes” or “no.” It covers boundaries, intervention, and communication. Even if you are uncomfortable with its attachment to sexual activity, these skills can be extended to other parts of life.

Here is where the parents of preschoolers need to take note: My teen (yes, my teen) also pointed out that you should start talking to your kids about the foundations of consent long before their teen years. How early? Preschool is not too early. It is not as if you will be actually talking to them about sex.

When we think about consent we often think about our daughters and avoiding assault or our sons teaching them to be respectful to their girlfriends. But really all aspects of consent cross gender and sexuality lines. Assault does not only happen to girls and all humans should be respectful to each other. With the underpinnings of consent, a parent gives their child the tools they will need later to deal with all kinds of situations.

What are some things that you can do at the preschool/early school age level? Teach your child that it is okay to say no to optional physical contact. Often this is stuff we consider harmless like tickling, holding hands with a friend, or even hugging a grandparent. On the opposite side of this, they should also learn to ask if it is okay before they touch someone. “May I give you a hug?” This may seem crazy, but think about it this way. By forcing your child or allowing your child to accept or give unwanted contact, you are teaching them that unwanted contact is okay. We don’t want them to have this as a foundational belief.

Allow your child to identify their feelings and needs. If they tell you they are hungry or tired, respect that. Don’t contradict them. That sends a confusing message to children, telling them they cannot recognize their own needs. If they say “no,” don’t automatically disregard it.

Encourage empathy. Try to understand how others feel might feel in a situation. Why does your friend Sam not want a hug today?

Teach them that they should help others if they are in trouble—otherwise known as bystander intervention. When you see a peer in need, get help or say something. (Of course, balance this with personal safety education and the “don’t get in a car with a stranger” scenario.)

Talk about reading nonverbal cues, the human body, gut instincts, and good touch versus bad touch. Let your child take care of their own body even at a young age so they are comfortable and familiar with it. Teach communication skills and “I” messages: I don’t want to do that. I don’t like playing tag. I do like ice cream.

Be a role model for your child throughout their childhood and teen years. Demonstrate boundary setting, asking/giving permission, and aiding people in need. This will help your child understand how to act in different situations. They will see this is a part of every day life.

Life is a series of choices. Talk about this as your kids make different choices along the way. What happens if you tell someone you don’t want to climb the tree with them? Why don’t you want to climb the tree? Can you tell your friend this? If your friend does not respect how you feel, are they a good friend?

Of course, eventually you will talk to your children about sex and, as they get older, this may be in more detail than you would like. No matter how hard, be honest and upfront. Be comfortable with words that we are often uncomfortable with. Prepare by educating yourself about the facts of life and the basics of consent. Consent discussions will be most effective if they are ongoing just like sex discussions. Also, they need be able to visualize how consent in regular life extends to consent in an intimate situation.

As your child becomes a teen, probably at the start of middle school, nip “locker room” talk in the bud. This is talking about a person in a sexually objectifying way. Explain to them how this dehumanizes the people spoken about and could make people feel like abuse is okay. Kids should understand that abuse includes negative words or touch based on the receiver’s perceptions and is never acceptable.

Acknowledge that their increasing hormones change the way they look physically, but also how they feel and think. All children can feel more angry or sad as these surges happen. These feelings are normal. Obviously, these feelings can make us more interested in human contact to include sexual activity, also normal. As parents, we need to help them learn to manage these feelings and understand what appropriate actions would be.

As your child moves towards high school, you can change the tone of the conversation and talk more specifically about sex and consent. Studies show sexual beliefs and behaviors (consent is one of them) become ingrained in a person before graduating high school. So it is very important to talk about all aspects with your child. Even if you believe in abstinence, conversations beyond abstinence should take place. Educated people make more informed decisions in the heat of the moment.  Also, one analysis of research I found suggests open communication about sex with the support people in a teen’s life equals “less likelihood of being sexually active, older at first intercourse, and increased intentions to delay intercourse.”

Watch the news with your child and talk about things that are happening in your community. When doing so, never normalize bad behavior with phrases like “boys will be boys” or “she did not mean it that way.” Do not victim blame by talking about clothing, location, or sobriety in relation to some one else’s bad behavior. It should be clear that although people may have opinions about those things, they are never an excuse for bad behavior.

This brings us back to the very important topic of intervention or helping others if they are in trouble. Make sure your teen knows that if they suspect someone is not consenting or not able to consent to something that is happening to them, intervene. In the media, we have seen how very wrong things have happened to a person while people around them have stood by and watched. As the parenting books say, it takes a village. This is true in most aspects of life.

Talk about how drugs and alcohol affect not only health, but more importantly decision-making. True, I did say earlier that talking about sobriety is victim blaming. However, people make poor choices while under the influence. And, teens will be exposed to drugs and alcohol for the rest of their lives. Discuss actual scenarios and how your teen might handle them. These scenarios should include your teen using drugs and alcohol and not. Point out that a person cannot give consent if they are drunk or high. If someone is sober and the other person is under the influence, the sober person cannot accept consent from that intoxicated person. Two intoxicated people cannot give/accept consent. This can be kept in mind in personal decision-making or the interventional scenarios mentioned above.

Provide trusted resources for learning and support. This requires you to do some research and find evidence-based information to support what you are telling them. Teens should be allowed to fact check what they are told. The person providing the support should be honest about their fears and concerns.

Keep lines of communication open. All children need to be able to trust that they can come to you, but with teens it is even more important. Although they may not say it, they actually do want help with the pressures they’re experiencing in real life. If they cannot come to you to talk about these things, they will probably go to their peers. If they come to you, you can control the message a little more.

When conversing, try not to be judgmental with your teen. “That is interesting, have you considered” is more effective that “that is terrible, don’t do it.” As most parents know, if you tell a teen you don’t like someone or something, it is likely to push them towards that person or thing.

Acknowledge the wonder of romance while admitting to the ups and downs of all relationships. Perhaps watch some of the current young adult movies or read a young adult book together—The Fault in Our Stars is an example.

Continue to make sure your teens understand setting boundaries and honoring boundaries. Remind them that they control their bodies and they have to respect other people’s bodies

When you talk to your teen about this topic, make sure they know what requires consent. Any sexual activity requires it. Sexual activity includes kissing and hugging. It includes any intimate touch as well as exposing one’s body to another person, making sexual advances on the Internet, taking sexual pictures of another person, or showing somebody pornographic images. Why is this important? Because research shows many teens do not realize that all of this is sexual activity. When you have this conversation, make it a conversation with give and take, not a lecture.

So what is consent? In an article published last year in the Washington Post, almost half the college students said there were unspoken signals of consent. A rule of thumb for your teen should be “there are no unspoken signals of consent.”

  • Talk with your partner beforehand about sex.
  • Ask first.
  • “Yes” means yes and “no” means no.
  • If you say “yes,” you can change your mind.
  • When you say yes, mean it.
  • Be firm and authoritative even excited when you say yes. The yes should sound enthusiastic and real when someone says it to you and vice versa.
  • Ask several times.
  • All parties need to consent.

What one should consider a “yes”?

  • Yes
  • I like that
  • That feels good
  • Actively saying yes, rather than not saying no.

What one should consider a “no”?

  • No
  • Stop
  • I don’t like that
  • Maybe
  • I don’t know
  • Not now
  • Maybe later
  • Inability to give consent (e.g., passed out, drunk)
  • Incapacitated in some way (e.g., drunk or high)
  • Not freely given (e.g., shame, guilt, or coercion)

All teens should also be aware of consent laws, i.e., the age at which a person can legally consent to sex. Consent laws are complicated and unique to each state. In Texas, the age of consent is 17. Read that again: 17. This is the age a teen can legally consent to sex. However, there is this thing commonly called a “Romeo & Juliet Law” which does make exceptions to those under 17. The minimum age is 14 with an age differential of three years. This means a person who is at least 14 years of age can have sex with someone less than three years older than them and it might be considered okay. Confused yet? I encourage you to research it so you understand it if you want to chat with your teen about it.

There is a lot of great information about consent out on the Internet. To my embarrassment, my older teen learned about the concept on the Internet, but after researching myself, I do not actually feel that bad about it. Plus I would like to think that we laid all of the foundations I mentioned above when she was young.

Love is Respect is a great website that is all about relationships, sex, consent, and abuse. It is for teens, but reading through the articles might give you some good ideas for conversations with your child.

ChristianityToday.com has a super article about consent in a Christian context.

This cute, short video called Tea and Consent would be good to watch with a 12–13 year old or above. Of course, you should watch it first, as I am not the judge of your video-watching guidelines for your children.

Have you talked to your teen about this? How are you teaching the foundations of respect to your younger children? What are your fears for your child in this area?

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