How Parents Talk With Their Children About Consent
Sharing their wisdom
Each generation of parents likes to think they’re getting smarter about raising children, so that those kids can be smarter, too. Technological growth and new information play a major key in this, hence all the quinoa and the advent of gadgets like this “Pixar-like robotic home assistant.” Some of these developments might inspire a wave of eye rolls from the jaded as well as a chorus of “well, back in my day”s, but frankly, these advancements are important, because back in many millennials’ days, something pretty essential was missing in most kids' lives: Our parents and public school systems never briefed us on the deep-seated nuances and importance of sexual consent.
Recently, Fusion asked a group of men how they learned about consent, and some responses were downright sickening. One man shared: “Being nice and an attentive partner were points or chips that a guy collected until he had enough to cash in for sex. Rape was seen as a violent act that a woman actively fought against. If a girl wasn't screaming and pushing you off her, she was not being raped.” (It’s no wonder former Vice President Joe Biden felt compelled to define “rape” to a group of college-aged men.)
I grew up understanding rape and sexual assault as something that happens only if you’re wandering a dark alley alone at night in a short skirt; something done only by a stranger and exclusively centered around forced penetration. I don’t fault my parents or public school education for skipping over this; besides the fact it’s uncomfortable (admittedly a weak-ass excuse to not discuss something important), in the ‘90s we lacked appropriate and approachable terminology like “consent.” Because of these oversights, it’s taken many of us years to understand that certain experiences—drinking too much and coming to as an acquaintance is having sex with you, having a partner forcibly urge sex to happen till it does, being encouraged to imbibe in more alcohol or drugs than you want, so that you perform sexual acts with someone you would not while sober, etc.—as sexual assault or rape.
Although it’s great national conversations about consent are ramping up at college campuses, it’s important this generation teaches the next the power of bodily autonomy at an even younger age, and how that extends further than “empowering” your daughter with high self-confidence. Lots of emotionally and physically strong women and people still fall victim to sexual assault and rape. Telling your young daughter she is powerful and enrolling her in karate classes is great, but that doesn’t clarify how to understand and communicate when physical or sexual touch is okay with you or not.
There’s plenty of resources in books and online available for parents who want to keep their children safe (obviously) now and through adulthood, but surely I’m not the only one whose biggest takeaway from books like What's Happening to My Body? Book for Girls was feelings of discomfort and confusion. And turning to the internet for answers about consent could easily lead kids to decidedly unhelpful places. Nothing can take the place of an actual conversation with an informed adult—like a parent.
To get a better idea of how parents are talking to their kids about consent, we spoke with eight moms and dads of young children to hear about their approach. Here's what they had to say.
For many parents, tickling serves as an early metaphor for when an action starts in pleasure-inducing fun but can become quite stressful and actually distressing if pushed past a threshold or comfort zone for the person being tickled.
Caroline: I have two sons, a two- and a three-year-old, and consent is already a subject here. If someone wants a hug or kiss and the other person says no, we say okay and smile and wave. If I am playing or tickling them and they say "stop," even while laughing, I immediately stop, put my hands up and say, "I'm sorry." It will become a bigger subject as they get older, but it is never too early to show them the basics.
Hollienoël: My kids are six and almost five. They are allowed to refuse to hug or kiss family or strangers with a "no, thanks," and we ask them if we can have a high-five instead. They can also refuse the high-five with no cajoling. We stop tickling IMMEDIATELY when they say stop. I ask friends' kids, "May I pick you up?" Or "I'd like to hug you, is that okay?" instead of just doing it. When my kids wrestle, they have to stop as soon as someone says stop, because we aren't allowed to touch someone's body without permission.
Haley: Because my kids are very young—all three are under 10—an explicit conversation about sexual consent hasn't happened yet, but I do think there are ways to equip children to help them both protect themselves from abuse and to respect the bodies of others at a very young age. Fostering respect for the space of others and their bodies is something that comes up naturally; "If so-and-so says, 'Stop climbing on/ hugging/tickling me,' then it's time to stop and give them space." Siblings push the boundaries on this a lot, but encouraging respect for other people and their bodies is something that can be learned early.
Establishing an understanding of bodily autonomy is a crucial component for talking about consent.
Erica: We started with a foundational concept of bodily autonomy from day one, in the NICU. I had read this before [my daughter] was born knowing she was going to be a preemie, and while we don't follow [Magda Gerber’s RIE philosophy] 100 percent, the big thing has been telling her what is happening to her, and when it makes sense to give her options to control her own body. Something else that catches people off-guard: I won't let people touch her without asking permission first. [At 11 months old,] she can't really respond verbally, but she can reach for someone to initiate contact. We have said, "You can ask her for a high-five," too, now that she knows how to!
We also model consent with each other and in response to her. "I don't like X, and this is my body. I won't let you X." Or something. Also, we’re sure to demonstrate consent when we are affectionate with each other. "May I have a kiss?" etc. To be honest, I am probably going overboard, but I'd rather make it 100 percent obvious to her that her body is hers and only hers than leave any ambiguity.
Michelle: My son is only 18 months, but already I'm trying to reinforce: (1) gentle touch, which is basically not hitting/pushing, etc. and (2) no one has the right to touch him if he doesn't want to, so no hugs/picking him up if he doesn't want to, especially from non-parents. As he gets older, we will expand the basic understanding of body autonomy to other people, as well as himself.
Hollienoël: We talk explicitly about [permission], no one is in charge of your body but you—except for rules that keep you healthy and safe. Seatbelt, toothbrushing, bike helmet—not up for discussion. Smiling for pictures, hugging other people, choosing to do medium-dangerous stuff like jump off the top of the slide? Those are your choices. And when we get there, haircuts, piercings, etc.—those will be their decisions, too.
Haley: I think it's really important to instill in our kids, even as toddlers, that their bodies belong to them. They do not have to do anything with their bodies, like hug or kiss someone, if it makes them uncomfortable, and they can speak up and say, "No, I don't want to do that." I was really glad my five-year-old recently told me something she was asked to do in dance class ["shake her booty"], made her feel "embarrassed," and that she didn't want to go back. It encouraged me that, if she was vulnerable to sexual abuse, she would feel safe telling me and confident in the knowledge that it's unacceptable for someone to ask her to do something with her body that makes her feel upset.
Erica: Sometimes it's a simple warning: "I'm going to pick you up now." Other times it's an option: "Do you want to follow me or do you want me to pick you up?" Also what has taken self-training on my part is interrupting her if she is doing something. Especially [when] trying to "help.” We let her feed herself and choose what she eats from healthy options provided, as well. It's a little extreme for our culture, but I feel better not doing things to her as much, and doing things with her more.
Even with very young children who cannot yet comprehend verbal language, parents are developing game plans to start instilling these important lessons. Unfortunately, some of their urgency stems from their own confusing or scary experiences growing up.
Cristina: As a new parent—my daughter is three months old—I obviously don't have too much to say on this topic just yet. However, I can tell you why, as soon as I heard about this, it made so much sense to me. The very first thing that popped into my head when I read my first consent article was my aunt’s ex-boyfriend. I must have been around four years old, and yet I can distinctly remember dreading the sight of him because he would always ask for a kiss and I was always forced to give it. I can remember saying no, and then the adults would laugh and say that I was being coy because I liked him. This enraged me! The other thing that killed me about him was that he knew I loved Ricky Martin, so he would say he was Ricky Martin, as if that were going to make me like him more.
I don't want [my daughter] to have awkward memories like that. So, yes, I plan on telling her it's her choice who she is okay hugging or kissing.
Daniel: My wife and I plan to be much more open about sexuality with our children, two daughters under the age of two, than our parents were with us. Growing up, I had to forge my own path, figure things out on my own. I never told my parents when I was going through puberty or when I became sexually active. My parents didn't create an environment that was conducive to having honest conversations about stuff like that. I was never passed down any insight from my parents, even though it's probably one of the things a teenager needs insight on the most. It was too awkward, I had crossed that bridge without them, and it would be too weird to broach the subject. And that's what we hope to flip on its head.
Our hope is that we can create an environment where our kids feel comfortable talking about this stuff with us as they mature. The goal for us is to never build barriers of awkwardness and let them know that their sexuality is healthy and normal. As a parent, your number one goal is always the safety of your child. It's not awkward to tell your child that they need to look both ways before crossing the street, and we hope to foster the kind of relationship that allows for a conversation about anything to be as simple as that.
So, will there be a conversation about consent? Absolutely. But my hope is that conversation isn't something that happens one night when we awkwardly sit her down. My hope is that, over the course of her life, we help guide and shape her into a strong, confident person that stands up for herself and others, that loves her body and knows that her body is her own.
But that's all wishful thinking, hoping that everything goes according to our ideal plan, which almost any parent will tell you doesn't always happen. But when it comes down to it, even if we don't get to the point that we can talk about sex without the awkwardness, we'll be having that conversation. Because if an awkward conversation will keep my kids safe, it's worth it.
And even with the advent of more schools broaching the topic of consent, parents of school-aged children say they still double down on reinforcing the concept at home.
Sarah: [My daughter] is eight, so it is mostly a one-sided conversation, single perspective at the moment. However, I’d say the topic is approached from a couple of angles and is a conversation I think you can’t start too early. First, there’s in-school counseling. Her elementary school conducts a "Talking about Touching" personal safety program. This covers everything from understanding the difference between safe and unsafe/unwanted touches to the “Always Ask First” and “Touching” rules, which basically outline body information and encourages the child to communicate with their trusted adults.
At home, it’s a little trickier and more holistic. It’s more about laying the foundation and not only affects how she will deal with consent issues but most other challenges. Here are a few ways we do this:
1. Honesty, trust, and reliability: We maintain open communication between us so that she’s never afraid to tell me if something occurs.
2. Empathy, mindfulness: I teach her to respect others' feelings and wishes and know that her actions—even the little ones—toward others have consequences on how that person feels. This could evolve later into understanding the subtle signals you send or receive and being mindful of that.
3. Inner strength/self-esteem: The stronger and more confident she is, the less likely she’ll find herself in a victim role or succumbing to pressure. In theory, though, this is a tough one with no guarantees—some of the strongest people I know have been victims of assault because life sucks like that sometimes.
4. Defining relationships: I think it’s important for her to understand the different types of relationship—from familial and platonic to romantic and professional—and understand, at least on a subconscious level at her age, how those relationships manifest physically.
5. On-going self-defense tools: There are self-defense tools for all ages. Teach them to your children, your teens, yourself. These can range from how to physically defend yourself/escape or how to simply be mindful of your actions and surroundings.