With all the stories about non-consensual sex and rape in the media lately, you aren’t alone if you have started to think about how to go about teaching consent to kids.
As a parent, how do you go about keeping your kids safe and teaching them the subtle nuances of sexual consent? Is this something that you start teaching early or do you wait until they are teenagers? And what exactly do you teach them?
Teaching consent to kids is a lesson that needs to start early. It is as relevant in the playground as it is at the unchaperoned Friday night party.
So… how do we get started when it comes to teaching consent to kids
First of all, what is consent? Simply, it is the act of giving permission.
For younger kids, from the age of 2-3, we are talking about general consent about bodies. ‘Do you want to kiss Grandma‘ when she comes to visit instead of forcing them to kiss Grandma. Is it okay to hug your friends without their permission? It is about learning that ‘no means no‘ in regards to themselves and other people. We don’t talk about sexual consent until it is relevant.
The cup of tea consent video provides a simplified description of what consent means for young children. For young kids,it is about learning how to keep their bodies safe now, waaaay before they even start thinking about being sexually active. It is all about learning the concepts of consent.
If we are talking about teenagers, we are talking about sexual consent. Sexual consent is not just a simple yes or no. Consent can be given and then removed. Partial consent may be given for one thing but not another. Is consent valid if it is given whilst under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Consent may have been given last week but not today.
The original cup of tea video provides a simplified description of sexual consent for teenagers. This video has been doing the social media rounds for a while, and uses the analogy of a cup of tea.
Amaze also has a playlist of their Consent videos on Youtube.
Why do we need to teach our kids about consent?
So, why do we need to be teaching consent to kids? Simply, because we want to keep them safe.
We want our kids to grow up knowing that they are the boss of their own body. That they have the right to say what does and doesn’t happen to their body. And to respect that in others too.
This is something that is useful in the playground, in the schoolyard, in the workforce, and in everyday life.
Why do we need to be teaching consent to kids so early?
Teaching our kids about consent is not just one conversation. It is a lifelong discussion that starts when your child is young and it continues throughout their childhood and well into young adulthood.
How many times do you need to tell your child to pick up their towel off the bathroom floor? Or to unpack their lunchbox?Or to…
Kids sometimes take a while to learn new things. Plus they have a lot of stuff to learn! So the sooner you start teaching them the foundations of what consent is, the sooner they will understand and remember the message. Which means that they will have a really good understanding of what consent is by the time they need to navigate it sexually!
So the sooner that you start talking, the sooner your child will ‘get it’!
What to teach young kids
So, what do you need to start talking about, when it comes to teaching consent to kids?
Teaching them to ask for permission. Teach your child to ask before they hug someone, before they take someone’s toy, before they climb into the sandpit with them. And make sure you model this behaviour, and ask your child for permission too.
Asking them for permission in everyday life. Practice asking for consent in your everyday life with your child. Do they want to wear the blue or the green shirt? Do they want toast for breakfast?
Modelling consent. Show your child how to ask for consent and make sure you do it in your everyday life. Try asking ‘Can I have a kiss goodnight’ and respecting that if they say no. Kids learn more by what you do , than what you say!
Not forcing affection. Let them decide whether they want to kiss grandma, shake hands or just say ‘goodbye’. They are still being respectful and showing good manners, but are just having a say in how their body is being touched. Don’t forget to tell family that you let the kids decide how they want to greet people.
Consent should be given each time. Let your child know that they need to ask consent each time. Consent can be removed and the terms of it can change, even midway. For example, you might have been allowed to play with your siblings lego last week, but you need to ask if you can play with it today. And if they change their mind after you have already started playing, or they don’t like the way that you are smashing their lego up, they can still change their mind and say that you can’t play with their lego.
Having a ‘no secrets’ policy. Let your child know that we don’t keep secrets, especially when it comes to our bodies and private parts. Secrets can be about presents and surprises.
Washing own body parts. Start instilling the message that our genitals are private and that that means that we should be looking after them ourselves. Encourage your child to wash their own genitals and ask for permission if you do need to touch their body.
Being the boss of their own body. Show your child that they have control of their own body. Ask for permission before you touch their body and make sure you respect this.
Respecting consent ie No means no. Teach your child that if someone says ‘no’ or asks them to stop, that they need to respect that. This message goes both ways. How do they feel if they say ‘no’ and their friend ignores it?
Help them read body language. A large part of communication is body language ie our facial expressions, how we hold our arms, etc. Start pointing this out to children. ‘Yes, I know that your friend said that you can have that toy, but she doesn’t look very happy about it.’
Understand the impact of their actions on others. Help them to understand the impact of their actions on other people, and that when they make a choice, it has an impact on other people. ‘I know you wanted that toy but how do you think your friend felt when you took it without asking?’. Or ‘How do you think they felt when you said that to them?’.
All of these messages will need to be repeated many times before they sink in. But when they do finally sink in, your child will remember them.
What to teach tweens and teens
This is the age when you start talking consent in more detail, because for the first time, your child is now starting to navigate sex for the first time. So we need to start talking about consent in the sexual setting.
The last thing that any parent wants to see, is their child up on rape charges or being the victim of rape! You might have a pretty good teen but throw them into a group of peers, and they are likely to do stuff that they would never normally do. Which is why we need to make sure that they have a really good understanding of consent.
Don’t forget that when teaching consent to kids, that their teen brain is still developing, which means that they still don’t see things in a 100% adult way. Plus they don’t have the added advantage of personal experience to draw on. Do you remember that saying? Once bitten – twice shy?’ Teens can’t always reflect back on what has already happened to them (or their friends), and learn by their mistakes. They just don’t have the life experiences that we have. Plus, we don’t really want them to be learning by their sexual mistakes, as the consequences can be pretty serious ie sexual assault, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
So when it comes to teaching consent to kids, it is important that tweens and teens understand:
what consent means
in which situations one can never assume consent eg whilst under the influence, in groups
how to give or withhold consent and ask for it from others
how to seek help when they or someone else is having their right to consent violated
the consequences of not respecting consent – sexual assault, rape, sex with a minor
As a parent, it is important that your teen has a good understanding of consent and that they understand that consent is more than just saying yes. Their partner may consent to sex but is that consent valid if they are under the influence of alcohol? Consent is more than just a simple yes or no. And in the world today, it is more important than ever before that tweens and teens understand this.
Strategies for tweens and teens
So, what do you need to start talking about, when it comes to teaching consent to tweens and teens?
With these older kids, you can:
Play the radio in the car. Sometimes I think that you could base every sex ed conversation that you need to have, off the stuff that you hear on the radio! Talk about the sexual messages that you hear on songs. Talk about the stories that people share on callback radio. This is a minefield of talking opportunities, so make sure you keep that radio turned on when ferrying your teens around.
Buy some books. There are some fantastic books out there, that talk about a whole range of things that are relevant for tweens and teens. And by providing them with a book, you can ensure that at least they will have some accurate information to look at -you can find some pretty dodgy (inaccurate) stuff online. You can find some books here (and they all talk about consent).
Talk about what is happening in the novels they read. There are some fantastic books for young adults out there that discuss the issues that teens face today. Read them as well, and try talking about what how sex was portrayed in them. What was positive about it and what was negative. Talk about the events and feelings that led up to sex. The benefit of using a book is that you can talk about the subject in the third person. It makes it a whole lot safer and easier for talking – for both parent and child!
Refer to movies and tv. Try sitting down and watching some movies and tv shows with your child. Talk about what you are seeing happen. Try questions like, ‘Do you think she gave consent? Why?’.
Talk about the news. The news is full of stories about sexual assault. As tempting as it is to shelter your child from these stories, empower them instead with conversations about rape, consent and keeping safe. Let them learn from these experiences.
Talk about scenarios. Talk with your teen about what used to happen at the parties that you went to, when you were a teen. Talk about the parties that they go to. Ask them what they would do if they were wanting to have sex with someone but they were drunk. What would they do? And what if they changed their mind partway? What if they saw someone taking advantage of a drunk friend? Brainstorm possible solutions, such as finding the nearest adult, calling a parent and getting them involved, directly intervening, gathering a group to intervene, or calling the police.
Keep on talking. Grab every opportunity that you can and talk about it. Your child might seem to be not listening, and say that they know it all but research tells us that kids do listen and they do want to talk to their parents about this sort of stuff. So keep on talking and remind your child that you are open to talking about anything! It also lets them know that they can come and talk to you about anything!
I'm Cath, a sex educator living in Australia with my husband and 2 kids. I help parents to talk about sex (with less cringe and more confidence) and to empower their child to make smart sexual decisions. You can join my online parent support group here and visit my shop for helpful resources.