My oldest daughter is 9, and my twins — a boy and a girl — are 6. They are not too young to be educated about sexual health and what healthy relationships look and feel like. We refer to their body parts with the appropriate names; we talk about hygiene, privacy and boundaries. I have taught them about tricky people, and the thing we probably talk more about than anything else is consent.
At the core of its meaning, consent is about permission or an agreement to give and take something. When we use the word “consent,” we often use it in a sexual context because when someone is raped, permission has not been given, and something incredibly personal has been taken.
My goal is to protect my children, but I also have a responsibility to send them into the world with respect for all bodies and an understanding of how consent works and why it is important. The nuances of communicating our wants and then hearing the response or seeing it in a person’s body language during nonsexual situations are lessons we can teach our kids now so that later, when the stakes are higher, they already have the tools to build safe sexual relationships.
I was in the kitchen one evening and could hear my kids trading Pokémon cards. My 9-year-old daughter asked her 6-year-old brother if he would give up one of his cards for one she was offering. He hesitated and told her he wasn’t sure. She tried again. He considered but was reluctant. She tried to negotiate. He said no. She continued to offer him cards he might like, but he clearly didn’t want to trade. She was badgering him. I knew it was making him uncomfortable because he wanted to please her, but he didn’t want to say yes; he was saying no but, in my daughter’s opinion, not enthusiastically enough.
The situation was making me uncomfortable, too, so I stepped in. I praised my son for using his voice to communicate what he didn’t want. I told my daughter that she needed to walk away from the situation. He was telling her and showing her that he didn’t want to trade. I explained that her desires should never be forced onto someone else.
I reminded my daughter of the phrase “You asked, I/she/he/they answered.” This is meant to eliminate nagging when my kids want me to change my mind, and it helps me teach them that they can’t always get what they want. The phrase is a lesson in consent. “You asked for the card, he said no.”
Lexx Brown-James, a licensed marriage and family therapist, certified sex educator and author of “These are My Eyes, This is My Nose, This is My Vulva, These are My Toes,” is also a parent navigating these issues. “When we teach consent to our children — across the gender spectrum — we also have to teach and model respect, [but] respect has changed so much even throughout my own lifetime,” she says. Brown-James grew up in the South and was taught to obey authority without question, but she points out that the definition of respect has changed. It can be a shared goal of treating others how we would want to be treated, no matter the age or power difference, she says.
Brown-James says it is important to empower our children to say yes as well as no, and to make them feel like they will be heard. But kids can’t be in control all of the time, so it’s necessary for adults to model informed consent. Brown-James gives the example of a child going to the dentist. It’s scary, and a child may not want to go, but healthy teeth are important. She suggests giving power to a child’s voice even in those situations. Let them choose the side of the mouth the dentist can look at first. Allow the child to say when they need a break. And be sure you or the dentist check in to see how the child is doing.
Consent also needs to be visible and identified in everyday acts. Asking kids if we can hug them, tickle them or take a bite of their food are great ways to model patterns of asking before taking and then showing them that their voice has power. Notice how none of the situations discussed so far have anything to do with sex? This is important.
I emphasize “no means no” and “stop means stop” with my kids, but it’s not always easy. If something hurts or makes us uncomfortable, telling someone to stop is still confrontational. We may want to keep the peace rather than face another person’s negative reactions. Although I hope my kids will speak up for themselves, I also want them to be able to interpret the other side of the no. If they are ever in a situation where consent is not clear through words, I want my kids to learn how to read body language so they can safely stop an action that is making someone uncomfortable.
Joe Navarro, 25-year FBI veteran and author of “What Every Body is Saying” and “Louder Than Words,” writes that parents should start to teach about body language as soon as their children can understand simple instructions. He emphasizes that all nonverbal communication has meaning and that body language conveys our emotions. Navarro encourages parents to remind children that learning to read body language is a way to make people comfortable.
But what happens when consent is given, but with hesitation? Not all consent is enthusiastic, so Brown-James refers back to teaching kids how to check in. Kids provide plenty of teachable moments for this when they want to do something but are nervous. Brown-James uses an example of her daughter wanting to pet a dog but feeling anxious. She said yes, but her body language did not convey excitement. By using a slow, check-in-as-you-go approach, Brown-James’s daughter got close to the dog, decided where and when she wanted to pet the dog, then finally touched the dog and was ecstatic. With each step, Brown-James asked whether her daughter felt okay.
The work and mindfulness necessary to teach these nuances are worth the initial stumbling points or emotional labor involved. Rape culture will not improve with a one-time talk at puberty. A foundation of empowerment, respect and thoughtfulness for others needs to be put in place early so kids’ intuition can guide them, whether because someone has touched them inappropriately or because they are navigating a new physical relationship as a teen.
Before our kids become teenagers, though, they need the skills to say no for themselves and for others if a situation doesn’t feel right. Deliberate, ongoing and forward-thinking conversations about consent in nonsexual situations will help them navigate higher-stakes sexual decisions when they are older.