How to Talk to Kids About Consent

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In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the importance of teaching kids and teens about consent has risen to the surface as a vital talking point. What was once a gray area is now widely becoming more defined and better understood.

Yet, even though talking about consent is one of those must-have conversations, it may still leave even the most well-intentioned parents squirming. Discussions about consent are both important to discuss and hard to talk about at the same time. But, it has to be done, and the earlier parents start, the easier it is.

Why Discussions About Consent Are Important

Where parents often make a mistake is assuming that all discussions about consent are sex education talks. The reality of the matter is that consent is about respect, and that's something that can be taught at any age.

They Teach Kids About Boundaries

Teaching children that they need to ask first before touching another person will help establish a solid understanding that consent is a vital part of any healthy relationship.

If you start early enough, teaching kids about consent is more about helping them learn to set boundaries for themselves while also respecting the boundaries of other people than it is about sex.

For instance, young children need to learn from the beginning that they must ask permission before randomly hugging or kissing their playmates or even their siblings. They also need to stop doing something like holding hands when another person asks.

Likewise, their playmates should respect their boundaries in the same way. If they do not want to be hugged, they simply tell their friend "No, thank you." And, if the friend will not respect their wishes, they should get a trusted adult involved.

Even though there is nothing sexual about preschoolers randomly squeezing their friends, kissing them on the cheek, or even holding hands, consent can still become an issue, especially if their friends don't want to be squeezed or kissed. It is important that they understand that not all affection, no matter how well-intentioned, is always welcome.

They Strengthen Personal Agency

In fact, talking about consent from an early age is one of the best ways to ensure kids understand not only that they have to respect the boundaries of others, but that they also have a right to say no to any type of touch that they don't want—even kisses from Grandma. Meanwhile, as kids grow and mature, these initial conversations become the scaffolding on which future discussions are built.

For instance, as tweens and teens approach the dating age, parents can build on these general guidelines about consent, expanding their talking points to include issues they may face like requests for sexting or pressures for sexual activity. All children, regardless of gender, need to understand that consent means both parties say "yes" and are comfortable with what is happening.

Why Saying "Yes" Is an Important Part of Consent

When most people think about sexual assault, they think in terms of safety. As a result, their conversations often become one-sided and focus primarily on what children, namely girls, should do to stay safe like traveling in groups, avoiding alcohol at parties, dressing conservatively, and taking self-defense classes. But the problem with this approach is that it leaves boys, transgender, and gender nonconforming youth out of the equation. The better approach is to teach regardless of their gender about the importance of consent.

In the past, parents approached the topic of consent with the idea that the other person needed to say no or stop the action from taking place in order to signify that they were not consenting. As a result, young couples wrongly assumed that because their partner did not say "no," then they were OK with what was happening. They never thought to stop and ask if their partner wanted things to move forward. And in many cases they want things to stop.

In fact, research has shown that this scenario is not uncommon. Many young people find it difficult to say no in a high-pressure situation; and many young people assume that because their partner did not say no, they were consenting.

Instead, to protect everyone involved, teens should be taught that if both people in the situation do not say, "yes I am fine with this," then they should not move forward. Saying yes signifies consent. Likewise, if the one person in the partnership does not say yes, or is unable to say yes because of being intoxicated or passed out, there is no consent.

Consent is basically granting permission to do something. And, if anyone in the relationship answers in any way other than a resounding yes, it is a sign that they need to stop right there.

How to Teach Kids and Teens About Consent

When it comes to teaching kids about consent, it is important that kids and teens realize that there are two people to consider. Too many times when any type of unwanted attention or affection occurs, it is because the person applying the pressure is only focused on their own wants and desires.

Instead, kids need to be taught to view others with empathy and treat them with kindness and consideration. When they do that, they will likely grasp the idea of consent.

Model Consent at Home

When teaching kids about consent, it is important to model this behavior at home as well. For instance, if your child does not want to be tickled, hugged, kissed, or wrestled with, then you need to respect that. Forcing them to do something physical without their consent, sends them mixed messages about consent.

Remember, kids model the behavior that they see. So, if you disregard their requests, their siblings' requests, or even the requests of your partner or spouse, then you are sending the wrong message. Everything you have tried to teach them about consent will go out the window.

Establish Boundaries

When parents establish firm boundaries for their kids, like accessing technology, eating snacks, or establishing curfews, they are building a foundation for consent. Kids understand the idea of asking permission before they watch television, eat snacks, or play video games.

Consequently, when you explain that getting someone's consent is basically asking for their permission, kids will already understand the concept. It will make sense to them.

Empower Them to Say No

Giving children a choice in everything from what they will wear to whether or not they will hug Grandpa, empowers and equips them with the tools they need to express consent. In the same way, you can give them choices about their body. For instance, if they have a scrape on their knee, you can ask them, "Do you want me to put the ointment on your cut or do you want to put it on?" When you give kids choices like this, you are giving them autonomy over their bodies.

As they get older, allow them plenty of opportunities to say no, like declining a playdate with a neighbor or an invitation to a slumber party. Saying "No, thank you" is not easy and takes practice. By giving your kids plenty of opportunities, you are equipping them with the ability to say no when it really matters.

Teach Kids Affection Is Shown in Many Ways

While it's important to teach kids how to say no, you also need to teach kids how to handle rejection of their affection. Discovering that a friend or playmate does not want to be hugged or hold hands, can be hard for affectionate young kids to understand. They may automatically assume that means that their friend doesn't like them anymore.

For this reason, it is important that young kids learn that there are many ways to show affection besides just physical touch. They can draw a picture, make a card, use loving words, or play a game together. Encourage your child to show affection in multiple ways.

Get Rid of Double Standards

Society has traditionally had a tendency to place the burden of consent on girls. When this happens, this implies that if they do not speak up and something goes wrong, they're at fault. Meanwhile, boys have historically received the message from the media and others that having sex is tied to being confident and masculine. So, they feel pressure to force girls into physical activities.

These messages are dangerous for all children regardless and need to be eliminated. Girls should never carry the entire weight of an intimate decision on their shoulders. Likewise, boys should never feel like their masculinity is tied to sex. Instead, children need to learn that healthy relationships involve agreement and consent on how it progresses.

Explain What Consent Isn't

When it comes to teens and young adults, helping them understand what isn't consent is just as important as helping them understand what is. For instance, wearing provocative clothing or flirting does not equal consent. Likewise, seeming "into it" or not asking a person to stop does not equal consent either. The only way to establish consent is with a clear and enthusiastic "yes!"

A Word From Verywell

When kids are young, it's important to remind them that they should ask first before showing physical affection. And, when they forget, step in and remind them. Likewise, you should help them find their voices when they're uncomfortable. Then, as they get older, build on these messages by emphasizing the importance of asking and not progressing with anything physical unless both people in the relationship say a resounding yes. When you do these things, you will be teaching your kids that consent matters, and that even affection that comes from a place of love should never be forced on another person.

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