I get a lot of questions about talking to kids and adolescents about consent. As adults, we tend to make things way more complicated than they need to be. It comes from having 40-ish years of life experience that we bring to problem solving.
Consent, personal boundaries, and bodily agency are things we start teaching kids very early on. All the conversations about their body, “good” vs “bad” touches, not being forced to hug or kiss relatives—each of these is shaping the child’s concept of consent. Teaching kids about respecting other people’s boundaries and privacy is also a form of consent. Don’t walk in the bathroom without knocking first—this is consent.
Where things can get dicey for parents is expanding this conversation to their kid’s sex life. We’re really good at talking to our kids about protecting their agency; consent is just extending that out to include their future partners.
Talk to your kids about consent with the same emphasis as other aspects of their sexual health. Use a condom, be safe, make good decisions, don’t get pressured into anything against you will. Consent applies that level of thought to the other person (or persons) they are including. Not all kids decide to become sexually active and that’s totally ok. This is about planning.
As a parent, your role in this is to equip your kids with everything necessary to navigate the world safely. Helping them develop strategies for sexual health is a big part of that. Being aware of active consent also increases their ability to support peers, if necessary.
So, how to make consent sexy? Incorporate it into your repertoire, just as you would putting on a condom or managing birth control. Things that people don’t typically consider sexy can become sexy. It takes confidence, planning, and, above all, practice. Consent is not ticking boxes on a form; it’s an ongoing part of navigating another person.
The act of asking someone out on a date is consent. You’re inviting them to go out with you. Imagine showing up on someone’s door at 7pm Friday night and dragging them out to a movie. Creepy, right? It’s also illegal and wrong on so many levels. You ask, they accept or decline, and things go from there.
Same thing with obtaining consent for physical contact. Again, this does not need to be a formulaic review of your intent. How about, “I’d really like to kiss you”? Trust me, whispering this at the right time and the right intensity—super sexy. This is a person you are connecting with, talking to them should be part of that experience.
The other side of consent is objectification; which is absolutely not sexy. Grabbing someone and kissing them might be popular in movies—not so much in real life. Ever kiss someone who is letting out a burp? Yeah, even more unpleasant and awkward than you’d imagine. Give people a little warning.
And then there’s sex. Consent is required. That doesn’t mean it can’t be sexy and possibly make things even more awesome. Here’s the trick—you have to practice. If you’re nervous about saying “I’d really like to….” or “do you like…?” practice saying this until it becomes natural.
“Do you consent to the continuation of this contact?” might be a bit formal, but you see where I’m going here. Check in and make sure everyone is still enthusiastically consenting.
Here are a few tips to start you off …
1. Model consent at all times. Teachable moments are everywhere, and kids absorb info in smaller doses. A quick example of respecting someone’s “No” or personal boundaries is much more effective than a 20-minute monologue on bodily agency.
2. Make sure your kids understand what “No” looks like. Girls and women are often conditioned against being direct when turning down dates or deflecting advances. Part of this is safety—there is the risk factor for male violence. Other aspects involve gender bias in socialization, but that’s another article altogether. Just understand that “No” can sometimes look differently based on the person. Check in on yourself and err on the side of caution.
3. Educate them on accepting “No.” No is no. No is not check back in a few weeks or ask a different way. No is definitely not “keep trying until you eventually wear them down.” That’s creepy. Graciously accept their no and move on.
4. No is also not “pretend to be friends with the hope that they’ll decide to date you later.” Yes, it’s good to continue the friendship. What’s not acceptable is hanging out when the sole motivation is that this person will “come around” and become attracted.
5. Conversely, “Yes!” is not a finish line. Consent can be revoked at any time, and by any party. Check in with your partner and refresh that enthusiastic consent.
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