Yes Means Yes, No Means No: Teaching Consent to Your Children
“Sexual violence is being experienced on epidemic levels,” proclaims Rebecca Marchiafava, Vice President of STAR, Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response.
Sexual assault is an overwhelming issue. High profile cases of rape are splattered across news websites, newspapers, and social media.
Helplessness and fear are two common emotions that accompany any thoughts of the subject. How do you, as a parent, confront such a difficult topic? How can you, just one person, have any impact on such a far-reaching issue? You can start by teaching your children about consent.
What is Consent?
You’ve seen it countless times in the news. An athlete or celebrity is accused of sexual assault, and his response inevitably is, “But it was consensual.” At this point in the narrative, the victim’s claim is widely dismissed by the public. Proving the lack of consent becomes the victim’s burden. But here is the question: are we teaching young men and young women exactly what consent means?
“Consent is the agreement to participate in an activity without coercion or force. The coercion term is important because there are a lot of things that people may participate in and may not object to, but internally, they are feeling uncomfortable or pressured. If you feel like you can’t say no, then what does your yes really mean?” Rebecca explains. Consent in any situation is a verbal yes or agreement.
When entering into a business contract or an Internet activity, you will be presented with an agreement option. Often the interaction cannot move forward until that “I agree” button is pushed or you sign your consent on the paper. The same should be practiced in social relationships. Agreement and consent must be present before the activity can continue.
According to Rebecca, one of the biggest gaps in grasping consent is the “misunderstanding that if someone doesn’t resist or say no, then that means they automatically consented.” This approach is the way consent has been discussed for years, and it is dangerous.
“Another gap in people’s understanding is the fundamental role consent plays in an interaction being healthy or harmful. If both people consent, it is more likely that the interaction will contribute to their self-esteem, self-worth, and their understanding that they deserve to be treated with respect. When consent is not present, it is disempowering, and it reduces self-esteem. It is the line between what is healthy or harmful or even traumatic,” Rebecca shares.
When Do You Teach Consent?
Your first response to this may be, “But my kids are five and seven, I’m not ready to talk to them about sex.” Understandable. But consent does not have to be related to sex in order to be understood. Rebecca adds, “When people hear the word consent, it is often associated with sex. Sometimes we forget that consent can and should be present in all types of interactions. So, I think from a very young age, parents can talk to their children about the concept of consent as it relates to those boundaries.”
Kirsten Raby, the Capital Area Regional Director of STAR and a mother of two boys, agrees with Rebecca that parents can start educating their children about consent at a young age. “Even at three or four, they have to understand that it’s their body and their personal space.” If the idea is still daunting, there are some simple ways to get started.
How to Teach Consent
Start small with what you have and be consistent. Rebecca advises supervising playtime and getting involved, “even in the sharing of toys or taking someone’s toys, ask ‘Does this person agree to that?’” Then, shift the conversation into the importance of asking permission and respecting the other child’s answer.
Another way to redirect your children is to reframe social interactions as “part of my happiness is your happiness. Part of me wanting to do this with you is also you wanting to do this with me,” Rebecca shares. Explain to your child that games and toys are more fun when both people want to be involved. The really important question to ask is, “Does this person want this?” Teaching children and teens about recognizing and respecting others’ choices is a small way to consistently value consent.
How many times have you heard a family member tell a child to give them a kiss or a hug when the child doesn’t want to show affection? Kirsten says that by “giving your kids the power to say, ‘This is my body and I can say no’ promotes the knowledge that they can say no in any situation.” By giving them the power to tell adults no when it comes to their bodies, you are confirming that they have ownership over their bodies.
One way to teach consent is by “making sure they understand personal space and respecting other people’s space and property. Even with my eight year old, I talk about yes and no and personal space. No means no in every situation,” Kirsten shares. With her two sons, she is constantly stressing that they respect one another’s space.
Finally, open communication is the key to valuing consent with your children. Kirsten explains, “Start early so that when they are teens and tweens, they’ll still feel okay to come to you with the hard stuff.” For older children in their teens, watching and discussing shows with them can open doors. Kirsten does this with her 14-year-old son and takes the time to address difficult topics with him. “We just get the moment to be honest and talk about speaking up, the bystander situation, how you can change a person’s life just by being an ally to them. I’ve talked to him about consent, but for him to see something happen and to see the effects, it helped to bring it home for him.”
Understanding consent can happen at all ages. “By teaching children about consent in a variety of situations, they will be more easily able to apply that to sexual interactions and personal boundaries,” Rebecca confirms.
Who Should Learn About Consent?
Everyone. Both boys and girls should learn from a young age about consent. Rebecca explains, “Generally, there are benefits to everyone because we are all human beings who need to be able to engage in healthy relationships to thrive.”
Traditionally, girls have been taught to protect themselves and to make good decisions. Consent needs to go both ways, though. Although boys and girls may be socialized differently and respond to situations differently, a broad understanding of consent can only enhance the health of the community. “I think we have this idea in our society that men are always perpetrators and women are always victims, and so that drives our messages to boys and girls. But the reality is much more complicated. Men do experience high rates of sexual violence, and we don’t hear about that. Part of the reason we don’t hear about that is we are not teaching men and boys about consent and boundaries for themselves as well,” Rebecca emphasizes.
It is your responsibility whether you have sons or daughters to make consent a family value that is practiced and encouraged in the home. “It’s not a women’s issue. It’s a people issue and a community issue,” Kirsten emphasizes.
To Teach Consent or Not To?
If parents do not teach consent, then the cycle will continue. “Not teaching consent keeps the pattern of sexual assault going. It’s what we’ve been doing, and it’s not working. Sexual violence is one of the roots of mental and physical disorders and negative health. By teaching consent, you can break the pattern,” Rebecca declares.
You have the power to start a new pattern within your family that will expand through your children. Rebecca explains that “the new pattern is talking about consent, modeling consent, and teaching consent. It doesn’t mean you have to do it perfectly, but we can come together and figure it out.”
If you don’t teach your children about consent, then they will learn about it from somewhere else, media or peers. They will learn what’s socially expected, and not necessarily what is right. This is one of Kirsten’s big fears regarding her sons, which is why she is so active in including the consent conversation in their home. She shares, “You want your kids to go into high school and college with this understanding. They are going to find themselves in situations where there may be drinking or sexual situations, and they should already have this foundation of consent.”
You Can Make a Difference
You may be teaching values like faith, honesty, hard work, and integrity in your home already, so why not add one more? Integrate consent as a value that you will teach your children, and you can have a huge impact in your community. You can raise conscious young men and women who respect others’ bodies, which can decrease sexual violence.
If it’s important to you that your child practices consent and respects others’ boundaries, then you can apply that in your parenting. Consistency will build so that by the time they are teenagers, they will have a solid core of protecting themselves and protecting others. Don’t just hope it works out. Be active. It’s so easy to operate in fear, but we can be empowered to lay the foundation and confront it head on.
“It’s possible and fairly simple once it becomes something you have decided to do as a parent. Ask yourself the question, ‘What kind of community do I want to live in? Do I want to continue to see these high rates of sexual violence?’ If the answer is no, and you want to live in a community where we respect one another’s boundaries, where people have the opportunity to engage in friendships and relationships that are safe and contribute positively, then you can know that you do have a role to play,” Rebecca challenges. ■