If you’ve ever tried to have a conversation with a teenager about anything having to do with bodies…
Like hygiene. Menstruation. Or (god forbid) sex…
You know the feeling of screaming into a black hole while the cosmos swallows your last breath. 😉
Having a productive conversation with a teen can be a LITTLE tricky.
That’s why one parent told me that you’ve got to do ALL your parenting before your child hits puberty.
You’ve got 12 years at the most to pack in as many of your values, morals, and guidelines as possible.
Because once your kid stops listening, that’s it. What you say goes in one ear and out the other.
So why do so many parents wait to talk to their kids about consent?
How Young is Too Young to Teach about Consent?
Back in May 2018, sexuality educator Deanne Carson sparked an international debate when she suggested that parents ask their babies for consent before changing a diaper.
The internet rose up in arms. Who did this woman think she was? We don’t need our babies’ permission to change a diaper.
But that wasn’t what Carson meant. She explained:
Of course a baby is not going to respond, ‘Yes, Mum, that’s awesome. I’d love to have my nappy changed.’ But if you leave a space and wait for body language and wait to make eye contact, then you’re letting that child know that their response matters.”
What she was talking about was building a culture of consent at home.
Consent is about much more than two people considering whether to have sex. It’s something that should be taken into consideration with any physical contact.
For example, do strangers have a right to touch your belly if you’re pregnant? Should children be expected to give a hug, even when they don’t want to? Do you have the right to tell a nurse or doctor to stop if a medical examination or procedure is hurting you?
Those are more difficult questions than the issue of whether a guy has the right to grab your butt on the dance floor.
Carson’s organization, Body Safety Australia, promotes cultural change around hot-topic issues like consent and bodily autonomy.
And they place the responsibility for teaching those concepts squarely on the shoulders of adults.
Culture change occurs when caring teachers and parents are supported in modelling asking for and respecting consent, so that this becomes the standard that young people uphold as they become adults.”
What’s Your Relationship with Consent?
It’s hard to teach your kids about consent if you weren’t taught about it.
Like many women of my generation, I grew up learning that my response didn’t matter.
I had to kiss relatives, even if I didn’t want to. The boys who pulled my pigtails while I was sitting in class got away with it. Even today I can’t stand being tickled, because I remembered being tickled unmercifully as a child and not being able to get the other person to stop.
In one incident in my grade school, boys were depantsing girls. As they walked through the hallway to class, a boy would dash up behind a girl and pull down her pants. Only the gutsiest boys would do it, and only the most popular girls were victims. When the game was put to a halt by adults, I didn’t understand what the big deal was.
It was a world in which any male attention was good attention. Sexual harassment was “harmless flirting.” You should be “flattered” that a man considered you attractive enough to harass.
That’s the culture that needs to change.
Change Starts at Home
After my conversation last year with body safety expert Emily Gaudreau, I realized that I needed to start thinking about what I was going to do as a parent.
I knew that the way I’d been raised wasn’t going to work for my daughter. The only threat my mother could conceive of was that her daughter might agree to have underage sex with a boy. The threats that face my 7-year-old daughter, growing up in an era of smartphones and the internet, are much greater than that.
My daughter and I both learned incredible facts about anatomy from those books. I was embarrassed to find that my high school anatomy lessons hadn’t prepared me for my daughter’s detailed questions. Despite the fact I’d had a baby, I didn’t understand the reproductive system as well as I thought I did.
It was tough to hear my daughter sounding out words that I’d never heard spoken in polite company. But that was my own issue; she didn’t mind. For her, learning reproductive anatomy was no different from learning the crazy-sounding names of dinosaurs.
At school, she was learning concepts like, “My body, my choice.” I appreciated the work her school was doing to teach her about respecting personal space and asserting boundaries.
But the most valuable lesson for both of us came in the form of a game.
The Tickle Game
My daughter loves being tickled. Every morning when I wake her up, she wants me to tickle her.
Sometimes she’d say, “Stop! Stop!” while laughing in delight. So I’d stop and wait for her to catch her breath.
“Why did you stop, Mummy?” she’d ask, when she noticed I wasn’t playing anymore.
“Because you asked me to.”
“But I didn’t want you to.”
“I will always stop when you say, ‘Stop,’” I told her. “You let me know when you want me to tickle you again.”
“Tickle me!” she’d shriek. And we would play again.
This game taught her that she could count on me to stop when she said stop. It also taught her that shrieking, “Stop!” when you really meant, “Keep going!” wasn’t conveying the intended message.
Over time, she started telling me that there were certain parts of body she didn’t want me to tickle. “The kids on the bus tickled me on my neck,” she said. “They wouldn’t stop. I don’t want you to tickle there anymore.”
So I didn’t.
I can’t protect my daughter every moment of her life. There will always be people who touch her in ways she doesn’t want to be touched.
But if I can teach her that she has the right to ask for the kind of touch she wants and say no to the kind of touch she doesn’t want, then she’ll stand up for herself. She’ll see disrespectful touch as the red flag it is. She won’t tolerate it.
That’s how we change the culture around consent.
One kid at a time.