My wife recently asked me to teach our teenage son that “no means no” when it comes time for sexual activity. I wasn’t surprised by her request because like so many, she’d been following high-profile rape cases at high school and college campuses across the country. It was clear to both of us that there’s a terrible problem in our nation regarding sexual assault and we needed to do what we could to ensure that our son, a great kid, wouldn’t somehow inadvertently contribute to the problem.
I quickly realized that my own knowledge of the subject matter was dated and what we needed to be teaching our son was now called “affirmative consent” or “yes means yes.”
That exercise got me thinking about what other essential 21st Century life lessons my son needed to learn, not only to keep himself safe, but also to ensure that he didn’t accidently cause harm to others. My list grew quickly and since high school wouldn’t be teaching him any of these things, I knew it fell upon my wife and me to carry this water.
The 21st Century life safety lessons I felt he needed to learn included: the seriousness of teen dating violence; the devastating impact of cyberbullying; safely interfacing with the police and, if necessary, asserting one’s constitutional rights; navigating the dangers and permanency of social media; surviving a mass shooter incident; and so much more, including, of course, sexual consent.
As I started my research on these topics, I discovered some sickening statistics which only confirmed why it was so important for us to discuss these issues with our son. For example:
- Twenty-four percent of sexual offenders against women are age twenty or under, and over 35% of all sexual assaults occur when a victim is between the ages of 12 and 17.
- Over 20% of white youth will be arrested by age 18 (with higher numbers for people of color).
- One in three teens is a victim of abuse from a dating partner.
- Every day, 47 children and teens are shot and seven out of 10 mass shootings take place at school or work
- One out of every four teens has experienced cyberbullying and one out of six teens has done it to others
These statistics, and many others like them, resonated with me beyond simply being concerned for the well-being of my own child. Perhaps it was because of my ongoing work as a leading gang prosecutor for the city of Los Angeles. Or, and more likely, it was because it brought me back to my own teenage years when I was unsupervised and terribly reckless.
Unlike today’s teens, I benefitted from countless “do-overs” to make it through. Those are largely a thing of the past and the margin for error that our adolescent children face is smaller than ever. While making mistakes can be a great way for my son to learn, when it comes to the seriousness of the subjects at hand, it’d be best if he didn’t.
As I continued to delve into these topics, I became curious if other parents were as concerned about these issues as I was and I wondered if my background as a troubled teen and work as a prosecutor skewed my perspective. While I realized it was difficult to imagine that our own children might become a victim or victimize others, the statistics that kept running through my head clearly indicated to me that even good kids sometimes made bad mistakes.
The reactions I got from other parents run the gamut. Most parents shared my concerns but, interestingly, admitted they had no clue as to where to start, especially when it came to the issues related to sexual consent, technology or those dealing with the 4th and 5th Amendment. A refrain I heard time and time again was “I can’t teach what I don’t know.” Other parents, sadly, simply did not want to think about these terrible topics in relation to their children or somehow felt that their race or monetary status somehow exempted their children from these dangers.
Granted, the issues on my list are complex and nuanced, but so is raising children. As my son quickly transitions out of our house, we’ve got an opportunity to help him learn these things that’ll be of benefit to him now and for the rest of his life. I may not get to all of the topics on my list, but I’m going to try—starting with sexual consent.
Perhaps, one day, our schools will create a class that helps us teach these skills, but, until that time, it’s on us as their parents to seek out this invaluable information and impart it as best we can. Doing so will help prepare our kids for the inevitable—when the unexpected things happen in life. At those moments, we want them to do the right thing, respond smartly and stay safe for their sake and that of others.
Jonathan Cristall resides in Los Angeles with his wife and three sons and is the founder of whattheydontteach.info and can be found on Twitter @teachourteens.—
Photo credit: Flickr/David Amsler