Consent is a life attitude, not just a sexual checkpoint. —
I recently found a phone number scrawled on a scrap of paper among my 7-year-old daughter’s stuff. I inquired, and she said a boy at her school had given it to her because he wanted to have a play date.
I didn’t know the boy. “Do you want to have a play date with him?” I asked.
“I guess I should. He is really begging me to have a play date,” she responded with resignation and a shrug.
“Sweetheart, don’t ever do something just because a boy begs you,” I said.
As if on cue, my 11-year-old son spoke up and begged, “Oh Beth, would you please give me some of your candy?”
“Not a chance,” she said firmly.
He whined the ultimate line: “C’mon, don’t you love me?”
I could hardly have set it up any better. “And really don’t do anything for a boy when he says that!” I exclaimed.
This, at its core, was a simple illustration of consent.
If you search for “consent” on Google, half of the first ten responses are boring dictionary entries, and the other half are about sex. Nowadays, the topics of consent and sexuality are often discussed together because sexual acts are among the most deeply personal ways that consent is violated.
But I wasn’t trying to explain anything sexual in this conversation with my kids. Instead, I was suggesting a principle for personal relationships: only say yes to things because you want to say yes—and only a clear “yes” actually means yes. This applies to sex, of course, but also to so many other areas of life. And for all kinds of reasons, it isn’t automatically understood by kids.
Through this little exchange, and countless others, I am trying to teach my kids about their dual roles:
As a consent giver, you have to respect yourself, and realize that your consent has worth or else other people wouldn’t want it. Your decisions have value. They’re particularly valuable when they are roadblocks to someone else’s desires, especially if they are the only roadblocks. Give consent only when it stays true to your own desires, and keeps your boundaries strong. In some ways, it is like respect: only give it when someone has earned it, rather than when they’re asking for it.
As a consent seeker, you have respect the giver and realize that, in personal relationships—especially physical ones—you need clear, unmistakable consent. Then, receiving consent is a privilege, not a right. Their consent is as valuable as yours, because they are a person too. And your desires are not more important than their boundaries, or than their desires for themselves.
On topics like this, I can’t teach my kids in a one-time lecture. It would be quickly forgotten. And I shouldn’t rely on a class they might take at school, which would be academic rather than personal. Rather, as a parent, consent has to be part of a regular attitude of respect that I work into everyday situations, because at some level, it is an everyday experience. They have to see that I respect other people’s boundaries, and that boundaries are not different for boys versus girls.
Consent is a life attitude, not just a sexual checkpoint.
If I wait to talk about boundaries and personal consent until my kids are old enough to explore sexual territories with others, it’s too late.