Consent is one of those words that can make even the most well-intentioned parents twist. At the same time it is important to talk and difficult to discuss.
Still, consent is a vital part of any conversation about sex education. And the beginning of a new school year, a time for new beginnings, new friendships and new experiences, can be the perfect time to talk with your children.
However, Dr. Elizabeth Schroeder, who consults parents on this subject, says that consent is not a single conversation or an item that should be marked from a to-do list.
If we only give the children “the talk” once, we will not consolidate the importance of consent in their heads, explains Schroeder. It also recognizes that, in terms of development, young people need repetition, reinforcement and concrete examples to retain information. To that end, if parents can connect what they teach at the beginning of the school year with real-life examples that emerge as the year progresses, the chance of them understanding and retaining these lessons increases, says Dr. Schroeder.
It is also important to remember that teaching children about consent is not always just about sex. Rather, it is about having control of your body. As such, what I teach you about this will change as you grow.
The issue is of the utmost importance because many schools do not even discuss it with students. As of May 2019, only 21 states and DC “include references to consent or healthy relationships in their sex education standards,” according to the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute.
Mashable spoke with Schroeder and other sex education experts to learn how parents can navigate the consent conversation and keep their children happy and healthy.
1. Use the correct words.
It is common for parents to teach their children body parts from the beginning. But some parents may avoid using medically accurate terms for their children’s genitals, or use pet names because they are embarrassed or think their child is too small for these terms. But the anxiety that parents can feel when using anatomically correct words like “penis” and “vulva” can be transferred to children, says Dr. Schroeder.
“They receive the message, ‘oh, this is something bad’ or ‘something I should be anxious about,'” he explains.
Instead, parents should help their children name and identify their genitals to introduce these basic terms, says Dr. Schroeder. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends doing this when children are between 3 and 5 years old. The conversation can be as simple as integrating these words with other parts of the body saying: “These are your eyes, this is your nose, this is your vulva, this is your penis.”
Issues related to sex and relationships develop with each other. Without first knowing these basic terms, it is more difficult for children to capture more abstract topics, such as consent, says Dr. Schroeder.
It is also important to emphasize that no one should touch those parts, except when a doctor needs to examine their genitals for their health (parents should always make sure they are present in these situations) or you as your parents wash your body.
Dr. Schroeder also recommends encouraging your child to approach a trusted adult if they touch him inappropriately.
2. Model consent in everyday interactions.
Parents should teach consent during activities such as bath time or when interacting with family members.
Melissa Pintor Carnagey is a sex educator and social worker who founded Sex Positive Families, an organization that teaches parents, adults and sexual health advocates about sexual health issues. She regularly models consent with her own family. This teaches your children that no one is entitled to another person’s body and that they deserve to be heard, regardless of their age.
To that end, Painter Carnagey encourages parents to foster a culture where you ask, “Can I give you a hug?” and “Can I kiss you?” They are normal and frequent questions. Painter Carnagey says that his family wonders the type of contact they want and nobody assumes or expresses that he feels entitled to give or receive affection. This practice will help children set their own physical limits and recognize the limits of others at an early age.
Of course, there are times when parents have to do things against their children’s wishes, such as vaccinating them, says Amy Lang, an expert in sex education. But, he says, for most other situations in which parents need to touch their children, they may ask: “Can I do this?” This will establish that people should ask before placing their hands, or any other part of their body, on any other person.
3. Use the media as a teaching tool.
A sitting conference on consent may not be the most attractive way to help children understand how to navigate consent. On the other hand, while television shows and movies often do not represent healthy consent, Painter Carnagey says he can still use them to his advantage. He often finds examples in the media where consent is represented in an unhealthy way and creates lessons about this.
Painter Carnagey also recommends that parents silence television shows and movies while watching with their children and ask how they think each character feels. This can help children learn to recognize nonverbal cues, such as when someone feels uncomfortable or happy.
Television programs and movies also do not have to be the only source of media around consent. Although most children probably don’t find educational videos as valuable as traditional entertainment, parents can use them knowing they are a reliable resource.
4. Prepare your talking points and use specific language
It is important to have conversation points that you can trust during difficult conversations. The more prepared you are, the better and more likely it is to remain on the subject.
For example, Lang says that children often do not understand the words that adults use every day. She quotes the word “appropriate”, saying that parents should throw it out the window when they talk about consent. Instead, parents should use words like “OK”, as there will probably be no confusion.
This can be as easy as saying, “It’s not right for someone to touch your body if you don’t want that. Similarly, it’s never okay for you to touch someone else’s body if they don’t want you to.”
To explain the definition of consent, Lang recommends that parents use a language such as: “Consent means that everyone agrees. Everyone says ‘yes …’ if one person says ‘yes’ and the other person says ‘no’, then the ‘no’ always win. ”
When discussing the limits, Lang says parents can also use phrases like “you have the right to say no to someone, even if they want to give you a hug” and “it’s not right or it’s safe to play games with private parties. You play a game with a child and makes you feel uncomfortable, scared, strange, that includes pinching, puncturing, you can let me know. ”
When you decide that your child is mature enough, you can talk to them about whether they are ready to have sex, trust their partners, stay safe, use contraceptives, sexual consent and make decisions.
It’s also good if your child complains and says he has heard all this before, says Dr. Schroeder. This only means that what you have taught is sticking.
5. Train your child to trust his intuition and feelings, especially girls.
As a society, we often ignore how children feel. Painter Carnagey refers to when we tell a child that he has to eat even when he says it is full. Validating your child’s feelings about his body from day one, on the other hand, teaches children that they have a voice and right to their bodies just like adults, he explains.
“When I hear parents talk about consent and even teachers who talk to boys, they tend to focus on cis girls and say ‘this is how you can effectively say no,'” says Dr. Schroeder.
For Schroeder, this approach is problematic because it puts the responsibility on girls. This takes away the responsibility of people who violate consent and can teach girls to doubt their intuition about their bodies.
Dr. Schroeder always talks with her cisgender son about how to recognize when someone is and is not giving their consent. She tells him that if he’s not sure, “assume it’s a no, don’t do anything and talk about it.”
By training your child to learn these types of nonverbal cues, she is teaching him to strengthen the confidence of others in themselves when they do not want physical contact.
Dr. Schroeder also encourages parents to tell children of all genders to learn the phrase “no but” so they can learn how to negotiate what they do and what they don’t want. This teaches children who have agency over their bodies.
For example, Schroeder offers the phrase “No, I feel uncomfortable kissing me but I would love to hold your hand.” This can make children learn to feel comfortable expressing what they do and what they don’t want them to do to their body, which they can use throughout their lives.
6. Make peace with your own discomfort.
Both Dr. Schroeder and Lang mentioned the #MeToo Movement, citing it as a symptom of our society’s concern when dealing with issues related to consent.
“We are a generation of adults who have been deeply affected by not having awareness and understanding of our bodies and our consent,” says Pintor Carnagey.
To that end, parents should overcome any discomfort they may have about consent to teach it effectively, says Lang.
The good news is that there are many resources to help teach your child to understand healthy consent, even on the websites of these three experts.
“It’s really about treating people with dignity and respect,” says Dr. Schroeder.