When we as parents talk to our teens about sex and relationships, we tend to cover certain topics. We tend to talk about the importance of using protection and preventing sexually transmitted infections, and of delaying pregnancy and parenting. But we don’t tend to talk about consent: what it is, how to give it and get it, and the role it plays not only in interactions with strangers but also in relationships.
This holiday season, as many families are spending time together and having conversations about relationships, it’s worth considering making consent a part of the discussion.
Even though the issue of consent has gained a higher profile in recent years with the #MeToo movement, research shows that it hasn’t yet become a standard element of “the sex talk” parents give their teens (usually and preferably, a series of conversations over the course of adolescence and emerging adulthood). In our recent study of how 21- and 22-year-olds talk with their parents about sex and relationships, less than half of the participants reported having family conversations about consent. When they did talk about it, it was mostly in reference to interactions with strangers at parties, rather than within ongoing relationships or in family situations—-consistent with the myth that most sexual assaults are committed by strangers.
Unfortunately, most school-based sex ed programs don’t address consent, either. So how will kids learn to practice consent in their everyday lives?
The good news is that children are starting to learn about consent as early as preschool. In many early childhood education programs, children are taught to ask each other questions like, “Do you want to play with me?” or “Can I hold your hand?” They are taught to notice if other children seem unhappy, and to ask during a game, “Do you want to stop?” They are reminded to listen to each other’s words as related to their bodies and how they touch or are touched by others (“I heard X say that they don’t like that”). Language is powerful, especially when it comes to consent, so it’s important to learn early to verbalize boundaries and to practice listening to the boundaries of others.
In these situations, consent is a simple act of empathy: of respecting others, paying attention to their expressions and actions, and checking in about what they want and what you want. This early teaching in schools and families can lay the building blocks for children’s confidence in their rights to their own boundaries and their respect for the boundaries of others.
Even at an early age, however, these messages may not be simple and may conflict with longtime patterns and expectations for how we relate to one another. For example, many of us tell our children to hug relatives when we see them, regardless of whether our children want to. Refusing to hug an uncle or kiss an aunt can create awkward situations for parents, but pushing children to have these physical interactions when they don’t want to can teach them that they don’t get to make decisions about their own bodies.
As kids move into adolescence, it’s important to help them further develop their understanding of consent. So what’s stopping us as parents from putting this issue front and center? Well, parents often model their talk with teens about sex and relationships after the messages they got from their own parents. The newness of our understanding and recognition of consent as a key issue means that most parents did not grow up learning about consent from their own families and school environments. This lack of knowledge and experience makes talking about it a challenge.
Extended family members—such as older siblings, cousins, and aunts and uncles—on the other hand, often talk to the teens in their lives about consent. In a previous study, we found that extended family, often older siblings, identified consent as one of the most important topics to discuss with teens when it comes to sex and relationships, which they related to a lack of education about the issue and the importance of treating others with respect. In that study, most participants were in their 20s, which suggests there may be a difference in generational attitudes about and approaches to consent.
This doesn’t mean parents should throw in the towel when it comes to talking to our teens about consent. Just because the topic is new to us or we don’t have a model from our own lives for how to talk about it shouldn’t prevent us from learning how. Helpful resources for all ages can be found online, and extended family—particularly siblings and cousins—can be great sources of support and advice for how to approach the subject.
For example, we can practice offering more options for consent and autonomy in family situations: giving children the option of whether to hug a family member, asking if they want a hug or a kiss rather than just doing it, or explaining how and why we’re touching them. We can encourage older children to talk about what feels good and what doesn’t, and teach them to stop their play every once in a while to check in with one another. With teens and young adults, we can ask questions like, “How can you tell if someone is interested in you?” and “How will you know whether it’s OK to kiss someone?” With teenage and college-aged boys and young men in particular, it’s important to talk about what masculinity is and how we can build more inclusive forms of it.
More than anything, it may be helpful for parents to think of consent not as a minefield, but as an issue directly related to empathy, which many of us discuss with our children on a daily basis. Being aware of others’ feelings and staying attuned to our own are social and emotional skills that come in handy in many areas of life, from personal relationships to the workplace. Teaching our children to use those skills in the context of all their relationships is one way we can prepare them to be aware and respectful of their own boundaries and the boundaries of others.