Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis
Teaching consent is an essential conversation for parents and educators to initiate with children. Admittedly, of all the crucial conversations, this one presents some of the trickiest challenges and internal dilemmas. How do we strike the balance between preparing children and frightening them? Is there such thing as too young for the concepts of sexual assault? With so many varying definitions of consent written into the law, how can we protect our kids and teach such a complex, ongoing issue? Is there a way to put our own histories of trauma aside to better prepare and prevent our children from experiencing or enacting sexual assault? How do we shift the focus away from what potential victims can do to prevent these acts?
Unfortunately, there's no way to lighten the topic or present it as a simple, solvable phenomenon. But if we tackle these concerns together and seek the guidance of professionals who specialize in family therapy, teaching consent at home will be a lot more approachable and effective. With this in mind, we reached out to Nicole Makowka, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the therapeutic director at Loom, a community and meeting place for parents, to learn how she navigates the aforementioned series of dilemmas. Read on for her advice on teaching consent, respect, and self-trust at various ages and how to prepare yourself for these conversations as a parent.
While Makowka agrees that it's important to discuss at home, she also stresses the importance fo sending "age-appropriate messages to your child about consent. For younger children, it's important to teach them they can always say no, and that when someone else says no, that means they have to listen right away. We teach our 3-year-old son 'if someone says stop or no, stop what you're doing right away.'" This ingrains the respect of boundaries from a young age, which you can then build on as your child grows. It also teaches them how to identify certain behaviors as inappropriate. "It's important to teach kids that they have the power to turn down physical affection (even yours!) if they want."
She also mentions that "many of these conversations will stem from teaching [kids] about their body parts and that some are private." During these discussions, remember to "teach young children to use the correct anatomical language, such as penis, vagina, etc. The younger they are when you start using the correct language, the more it is normalized" and open, rather than seen as a source of shame. If you feel like it's important to extend the conversation beyond the classic example of non-consent "no means no" you can also emphasize the importance of granting and asking for permission and only proceeding a certain action if there's an affirmative "yes."
Then, "as children get older, your messages about consent and defining consent can become more specific, such as 'when you want to give someone a hug, ask them if that's okay.'" Makowka says. "That teaches them to respect both 'no' and 'yes.'" You can also "externalize the topic by using what's happening in the media as a conversation starter. Asking questions about a specific media story, like 'what do you think about this?' and then taking time to really listen to their thoughts is a great way to reinforce and clear up messages that can sometimes be confusing."
Trusting Their Emotional Reactions
Another important message to reinforce is more about building self-trust and conviction. You can help teach your kids to trust their own feelings and reactions to affection by backing them up rather than challenging their perceptions and impulses. For example, "if they don't want a kiss from a family member, it's okay for them to turn it down. And if they turn you down, don't guilt them. Just say 'okay.'"
Also, try not to be afraid of answering a ton of questions. It's important not to "shame children when they ask questions" so they don't become confused and think talking about it all is off limits. "Determine the message that your family believes in, and make it clear. In our home, we say things like 'in our family, we respect everybody.' It's a global way for us to reinforce message like no judgment, listening, being kind to people who are the same and different from us, kindness to animals, etc." Or you "can say things like 'you're in charge of your body' and 'everyone gets to choose who they like and who they love.'"
On a separate but equally important note, "there is significant value in teaching both boys and girls the same messages about consent starting at a very young age. Messages about respecting their body, saying no, not keeping secrets about private body parts, trusting their own feelings if they don't want to be touched, and having an open dialogue with parents is not gender-specific."
Model Behavior and Be Clear
Makowka says that "as parents," you should "model the kind of behavior" you are promoting in order to keep your messaging consistent and thorough. In the same vein, she explains that "kids feel most secure when there are consistent messages from both parents. So once parents are on the same page about the messages they are sending, talking with their kids together is great" as it isn't "something only one parent should be responsible for. The message you want to send to your child is that they can talk to both of you about their feelings and ask questions."
Aside from sending clear messages around respectful behavior and healthy affection, it's also important to be extremely precise when defining certain terms. For example, the maintaining and explaining a distinction between "secret" and "private." As Makowka explains, "in our family we believe in openly talking about body parts and that it is not a secret thing. Telling children that it's not okay for someone to touch their bodies, or for them to touch someone else and keep it a secret, is important." Whereas "telling them their penis, vagina, etc. is private and is only seen by themselves, parent, or doctor." While the difference between a private part and a secret may seem subtle or interchangeable to adults, that's not always the case with children, so it's better to air on the side of caution.
How to Prepare Beforehand
Remember that you don't have to do this alone, even if you aren't raising your child with a partner. It's a great idea to share concerns and ideas with a supportive loved one or friends who are also parents. Makowka also recommends "connecting with their teacher at school and asking specific questions like, 'is consent discussed among the kids?' or asking for specific resources used in school so you can see what messages they are getting at school and be able to reinforce and address them at home."
Also, the topics of sexual assault and consent "can activate emotions and feelings that we don't expect sometimes," and Makowka suggests seeking counseling or advice from those you trust "if you have experienced any trauma around this to process how to approach your child on this topic and work through whether transference is impacting your parenting decisions."
Identifying Existing Issues
If your child, young or grown, approaches you to discuss an experience of harassment or abuse, be extra careful not shame them. Simply listen and remain calm in their presence so you're able to "check in on your child's emotional state, safety, any other concerns." The goal is to "let your child know that you are always there to help them and keep them safe and that they will never get in trouble by telling you the truth. Assure your child that you are a team and they are not alone. Know that you will be an advocate for them and, when appropriate, make specific, actionable plans that can be implemented." There are also other resources available to help you navigate this situation, and, "depending on the specifics of the situation talk to your child's teacher, counselor, or administrator," says Makowka.
To learn more about how to have difficult but crucial conversations with kids, learn how to talk to kids about gender and how we can all be better anti-sexual assault advocates in little ways every day.