“You don’t have to kiss or hug anyone you do not want to.”
I started sharing statements like this with each of my children when they were about four years old. Having been sexually abused at the age of eleven, I know firsthand the importance of giving kids the tools to handle difficult situations and the confidence to speak up, even if it is to an adult who you or your kids interact with regularly.
It is critical to begin laying the foundation and start having conversations about consent with our kids as soon as they can comprehend words.
Consent is a huge part of all of our lives – and it begins with teaching preschoolers about being safe with age-appropriate reminders, eventually leading to conversations about sexual activity when the time is right.
Teaching our children the importance of reading sexual cues in their formative years is important. As challenging as it is to think of our kids in mature situations, many of us simply cannot imagine our children behaving inappropriately or doing wrong – in any social situation, sexual or not. And yet, we see and hear of so many cases where signals and lines can get crossed. In some of those situations, it may not be a case of wanting to do harm, but not knowing better. And that is how we parents can help protect our children later: by educating them about consent from a young age.
Finding Resources for Crucial Conversations
Many families feel an understandable awkwardness while talking about sex and sexuality with their kids. But the truth is, our kids are constantly bombarded with information via different mediums and sources, in subtle and not so subtle ways.
As parents, often we simply do not have the right words to articulate to our children the ways they can be mindful about their bodies, consent, and sexual abuse and assault. Like most complicated socio-emotional topics, there are many layers that depend on the age and maturity of your child.
We all try our best to empower our children, but how can we explain a tricky topic like consent to children, and at what age do we start?
What Is Consent and How Does It Work?
As described by Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (rainn.org), consent is an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent should be clearly and freely communicated. A verbal and affirmative expression of consent can help all of us understand and respect each other’s boundaries.
Consent cannot be given by individuals who are under age eighteen, intoxicated, incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, or asleep or unconscious. If someone agrees to an activity under pressure of intimidation or threat, that isn’t considered consent because it was not given freely. Unequal power dynamics, such as sexual activity with an employee, student, spiritual organization, or team member also means that consent is not freely given.
RAINN says when you’re engaging in sexual activity, consent is about communication. And it should happen every time for every type of activity. Consenting to one activity, one time, does not mean someone gives consent for other activities or for the same activity on other occasions. For example, agreeing to kiss someone doesn’t give that person permission to remove your clothes. Having sex with someone in the past doesn’t give that person permission to have sex with you again in the future.
Having gone over what consent means, remember that in the early years, we parents are simply trying to help our kids be aware of their own bodies, boundaries, rights, and safety measures they can use in different, and sometimes dangerous, situations.
Keep in mind that consent, respect, and establishing boundaries does not apply only to sexual activity, but to all relationships. If your teens mention that someone made them feel pressured, use the opportunity to explore personal cues of discomfort (like self-doubt or a racing heartbeat). Practice assertive boundary-setting and one of the most important words you can teach your kids to say in any social situation: no.
When Can We Start Empowering Kids?
Rosalia Rivera, certified consent educator and child sexual abuse prevention specialist, is the founder and host of the podcast Consent Parenting. She says to begin teaching consent as soon as kids are verbal. “This is the age where they are beginning to transition to pull-ups, training underwear, and toilet training,” says Rivera. “This is the age where they start to get more curious about their own genitals and can begin to learn the names.”
Age-appropriate conversations based on comprehension should happen about the following topics with toddlers up to preteens. Kids should learn about:
1. Body parts. Teaching the correct names of genitalia.
2. Safe versus unsafe touch. Avoid using the terms good or bad touch.
3. No-secrets policy in your family. Even if an adult says it’s a good secret and how to respond if an adult says that.
4. Boundaries. What to say and how to act to ensure a child’s boundaries are respected.
5. Parental or guardian pact. That you will always help your kids be safe if someone touched them inappropriately, and that it is never the fault of the child.
These are the basics. You don’t have to teach this all at once. But how can you ensure kids understand? Rivera recommends what-if scenarios to help families practice in age-appropriate ways.
For example: What if Uncle John tries to tickle you after you’ve told him you don’t like it, what do you think you can/should do?
What if a friend tries to rub your back after you asked them to give you space and they didn’t listen, what do you think you can/should do?
According to Rivera, the answers your kids provide will help you see if they understand the concept of consent and what else the kids need to know. “It will also help you think of other ways to teach them what they’re missing or reinforce what they do know,” says Rivera.
Confronting Cultural Norms
For many families, social skills are based on age-old cultural norms. Insisting our kids hug or kiss a family member or close friend is one example. Often, we encourage our child to deliver a hug or kiss, fearful of offending the adult in the situation. One must remember to pause and look for our children’s cues. If kids are uncomfortable, we should be respectful of that.
Besides, there are many other ways to show affection that do not include invading a child’s personal space. Identifying alternatives to hugging to maintain distance was one important lesson we learned from life in a pandemic.
Talking with Preteens
My 11-year-old came home from school after his first sex education class and said this: “I don’t know why we need to have these classes. We all already know all this stuff. It is so uncomfortable, and those videos are so weird!”
This was followed by an honest conversation between us during which I ended up busting many myths stemming from his friends’ ill-informed knowledge base.
“By the way, at school, did your instructor or friends discuss consent?”
My son looked at me blankly. “What’s that?”
This gap between the basic knowledge of personal space and one’s body and children’s perception of sexual activity is one of the biggest reasons why we need to do a better job of educating our children at home.
It falls squarely on the parents’ shoulders to teach their children about the importance of consent. If kids are old enough to read and watch films about sexuality, bullying, and relationship drama, they are old enough to discuss how to be respectful of others.
Parents’ conversations with preteens should build on earlier conversations.
For example: What if someone snaps your bra strap after you told them not to, what do you think you can/should do?
What would you do if you were uncomfortable with a classmate who was standing too close to you, maybe to intimidate you?
Nuanced Discussions with Older Kids
Schools, educators, and the curriculum can only be effective if at home, families reinforce the message with regular discussions about consent and boundaries.
Teens need to hear from you that it is not okay to touch another’s private parts without their consent, even if it’s intended to be part of what is perceived as a joke or playful in manner. Teens who are sexually active or exploring their sexuality need to hear from you that when someone says no – no matter where they are in a relationship – it always means no. You might explain that even in marriage, you and your partner always have the power to say no.
Finally, your kids need to understand that saying inappropriate things is harassment and touching someone inappropriately is sexual assault. These kinds of actions aren’t funny or clever or part of being a teenager. In some cases, they can be punishable by law, and often, can cause lasting damage to someone’s mental health.
Navigating the Waters of Consent
The truth is kids aren’t born with the social-emotional tools they need to navigate the notion of consent and communicate effectively about sex. When we don’t talk about these things with them, we are setting up our children for failure with future partners, or worse, dangerous or damaging experiences with people who have abusive or illegal intentions.
When it’s time to talk with your teens, the first step is to be comfortable yourself and remember to talk with them, not at them.
Include discussions about consent, sexual abuse, or assault in another conversation. It doesn’t have to be a “let’s talk about this…” but rather, “while we are talking about this, let’s touch upon that, too.” You can put the ever-present media in our lives to work and bring up a topic while you’re watching a movie or scrolling through Instagram. Not forcing it is key. Try asking, “What do you think of that?” in relation to a sexual harassment accusation. Or, if your child says something like, “That guy is creepy!” while watching a TV show, you can respond “Yeah? How so?” This gives them more thinking space and opens communication around those topics.
Jennifer Shively, a licensed professional counselor in Richmond and mom of two college-age children, says there are warning signs that our children may be affected by someone bullying them sexually, touching them repeatedly, verbally assaulting them, or invading their personal space despite repeated requests to stop.
“Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between normal teen emotions and behaviors and warning signs that something is amiss, especially when they are not forthcoming because of feelings of shame or fear,” says Shively.
Red flags might include the teen becoming quiet, down, or withdrawn; changes in weight or appetite; lack of energy; change in self-care, hygiene, or fashion; exhibiting anxiety or insomnia; avoidance of certain people, places, or situations; a decline in school performance; and less emotional regulation than usual.
Ultimately, trust your gut as a parent and reach out to your children if you think something is seriously wrong. Ask if they would like to talk with someone. If they are hesitant, offer to go with them to see a counselor or ask them to at least attend a few sessions online or in-person before ruling it out.
When talking with teens, Shively also recommends taking a different door into the conversation by framing the challenge as originating with other children. “A parent might say, ‘I’m really concerned about kids your age and hope they would talk with a parent or find a trusted adult for support when faced with unwanted advances or sexual behavior,’” Shively suggests.
Shively has another simple way of finding out what is happening in her kids’ lives. Whenever a news article or show or topic comes up, she asks questions like, “Have you seen this happen with your friends or kids at your school?”
She also says parents should draw on their own experience to help their kids navigate complicated questions involving consent.
“Using our own or known experiences – when appropriate and not too heavy for the individual – can lead to many open-ended conversations,” says Shively.
Ultimately, we want to know that our kids are safe. We want our kids to know that uninvited touching from anyone – a friend, a teacher, a family member – is not acceptable and that unless someone freely says “yes” to sexual behavior, it’s not okay.
Keep in mind that conversations about consent, boundaries, intimacy, respect, relationships, sex, and sexual health are complex, interconnected, and evolve with time and understanding.
I mentioned at the start of this article that I was sexually abused as a child. I am glad that I knew it was crucial to tell my mother immediately that the mailman had taken my hand, kissed it, and placed it over his pants. I shudder to think what would have happened had I not known (at age eleven) what to do with the discomfort I felt. That experience is the foundation for why I am an advocate of providing kids with the tools to not only identify abuse or breach of consent, but also manage the range of emotions parents and kids may feel, and know what actions to take.
All these conversations not only add up to empowerment for our children, but also reassure them that they have a safe space to voice their big or small feelings – feelings that may be brought on by a single, disconcerting touch.