Sex. It’s a topic parents often cringe at when thinking about how to broach the subject. And while teaching children about the birds and the bees is an important step toward sexual health and safety, allow me to make another suggestion: talk to your kids about consent too.
A recent study demonstrated that receiving consent education before college was a protective factor against sexual assault and with unwanted sexual contact occurring every 68 seconds in America, the importance of talking to kids early and often cannot be understated. In addition to preventing harassment, teaching toddlers, tweens, and teens about consent helps them develop a healthy relationship with themselves and others throughout the lifespan.
Talking to Children
Although often linked to sex, consent is all about giving permission—a concept that can be applied to many childhood experiences, such as sharing and hugging. Here are some tips for talking to children about consent:
Let children set their boundaries.
For young children, conversations about consent can start with bodily autonomy. For example, if your child doesn’t want to hug or kiss a family member, let them know it’s okay. Try saying, “It’s alright if you don’t want to give hugs. Do you want to wave or say a silly hello instead?”
Or, if you and your child are having a tickle fight and your child says, “Stop!” pause the play and say, “I heard you say stop so I’m going to stop. Let me know if you’d like to keep playing or do something else.”
Model how to respect the boundaries of others.
Children often learn through play. If your child is upset that a friend of theirs doesn’t want to play the same game, use this opportunity to tell them, “Games are only fun if both friends want to play” or “Sounds like your friend didn’t want to play that. I wonder if you can find a game you both want to play?” Teach your child to say, “Okay, thanks for telling me” when someone says no.
Instead of telling your child, “Give your sibling a hug,” switch the script to, “Ask your sibling if they’d like a hug” to model how they can practice asking for consent.
Remember, consent isn’t limited to physical touch. If we teach children that getting consent means getting permission, then we create more opportunities for children to get comfortable saying no and respecting no. For example, parents can model asking their children, “Can I have a bite of your mac and cheese?” rather than reaching over and helping themselves.
Talking to Adolescents
As kids get older, conversations around consent should be much more direct.
Discuss what consent means for them.
Oftentimes, consent is confused with a simple “Yes.” In reality, it’s often much less clear. Use the FRIES acronym to teach your teen about what true consent means.
● Freely Given: consent is always given without pressure or coercion.
● Reversible: people can change their minds and decide to stop at any point — even if they’re in the middle of sexual activity.
● Informed: everyone involved needs to know exactly what they are consenting to, every single time.
● Enthusiastic: if the “yes” isn’t excited, or if the person is disengaged, it’s a “no.”
● Specific: consent is specific to what is being asked in the moment; it is not a green light for future requests.
Encourage them to reflect on their personal values.
We want adolescents to feel confident in their sexual decision making. By asking them to consider their reasons for wanting to have sex, what types of intimacy they are comfortable with, and how they intend to be safe during sexual activity, we open up a space for them to reflect on their feelings and their personal readiness level. Parents should also encourage teens to not only think about their own boundaries, but to have open conversations with their partner regularly. Remind teens that sex is never owed regardless of how long they have been with their partner or what other people are doing in their relationships.
Talk about substance use and consent.
We want to make it clear that consent cannot be given if someone is intoxicated, asleep, or incapacitated in some way. Any sexual behaviors with a person who can’t consent is assault. Ask your teens to reflect on how they will be safe at parties and collaborate on a safety plan, whether that means having a trusted friend by their side throughout the night or calling you to pick them up if they feel uncomfortable at any point.
Keep the conversation going.
Be proactive in talking to your kids about consent. One conversation is not enough. By regularly discussing consent with children and adolescents not only are you modeling that it should be an ongoing conversation to have with their peers and partners, you’re also empowering them with the knowledge and language to do so.