Teaching Consent: Four Methods From the Mouths of Moms

By now, we’ve all seen countless stories of sexual harassment, aggression, and rape making the headlines and appearing in our Facebook feeds. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have brought to the forefront the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace. And it has parents of both girls and boys all shook up.

Teaching consent has become an important part of the life skills we pass on to our kids. But with no definitive sourcebook on how to ensure your children don’t become a victim or a perpetrator, parenting in this time of cultural shifts is fraught with even more fear and anxiety. One thing’s for sure: Raising kids who respect each other and themselves requires talking early and often.

We’ve caught up with four moms of both boys and girls for insights into their methods for teaching consent.

Permission is Non-Negotiable

“Consent is a huge issue for me,” says Alana, mom to 4 year-old Daniel. “Ever since he started preschool, I’ve always required him to ask his friends before touching them. He’s naturally affectionate and I love that about him but I know that other kids have their own comfort levels and their own rules. So if he wants to hold someone’s hand, wrestle, or just give a hug… He knows he has to ask first! And if they say no, then it’s hands to yourself. Sorry, buddy.”

“We never force ourselves on him either and have a No Tickling rule that all family members have to follow. Just as we expect him to ask others permission to touch, we don’t force touch on him. So he doesn’t have to kiss his aunts or hug grandpa or sit on Santa’s lap if he doesn’t want to. No forced affection. Period.

“I firmly believe that respect starts at home and we have to be his role models. I don’t buy into any of that ‘boys will be boys’ mentality. Boys may have some preference, likes or dislikes – whatever – but they don’t get a pass on respect. That applies to everyone regardless of what you’ve got in your pants. My grandfather and my father are both very old school and yet they’re both incredibly respectful. I’ve never seen a harsh word or a rude action from either of them.

“My husband and I model love and respect at home. There’s no way you would see him pinch my bottom or grab me for a kiss. It’s totally possible to acknowledge each other’s physical boundaries and personal space while still being affectionate… It just means asking first. So we ask, “Can I have a hug?” or “Will you give me a kiss?” rather than demanding it or just grabbing and pulling him in. He needs to know each person has the right to body autonomy and that you have to wait for a “Yes” rather than going for it until you get a “No.”

“Permission is non-negotiable in our home. Daniel knows that you don’t get to have what you want just because you really, really want it. But to get there, we had to be tough on not giving in. We don’t fall for any type of coercion – whether it’s tantrums or passive aggressive guilt trips – no means no and we really stick to it. Even though we’re generally enforcing it for things like “No, you can’t have another ice cream cone,” or “No, I won’t buy you that toy,” I think upholding that “no” lays the foundation for consent later on. It teaches him that permission is more important than his desire.

“Finally, we do a lot of work on teaching respect, compassion, and kindness in general. We let him know to always speak about people respectfully, to help a friend in need, and to look out for each other. Because at the end of the day, it’s not just about raising a boy who’s not going to be the next Brock Turner, but raising someone like the exchange students that chased and captured him.”

Girls Play a Part Too

“As a rape survivor and mother of two girls, this is definitely something we talk about a lot,” says Angelica, mother to 9 and 13 year old girls. “But my approach here is going to be pretty unpopular with most people.

“I believe that as a culture, we take a very sexist approach to the topic as a whole and treat it like it’s very black and white. On the one hand, we have people who want to deny rape, or excuse it away because a girl dresses a certain way and so on. On the other hand, we have the equally sexist outlook that the girl is this pristine and pure victim with no agency or common sense whatsoever. But what if it’s a little of both? I know in my case it was.

“I was a precocious 13 year-old who looked way older than my age and could get into all the cool clubs. I liked to dress sexy, I liked to be wild, and frankly I liked trouble. Does all that mean I deserved to be raped? Of course not. But did I play with fire and get burned? Absolutely! And before anyone tries to convince me that I’m feeling some sort of victim’s guilt, believe I deserved it, or don’t respect myself enough… Let me tell you this: I respect myself enough to see myself as an active player in what happened. I wasn’t just a victim. I made bad choices and I’m responsible enough to acknowledge that.

“If a man walks into a rough part of town wearing a Rolex and some other flashy items and he gets robbed, we can acknowledge that he didn’t use the best common sense. That’s not to say, he deserved to get robbed. But it does mean that we believe he was intelligent enough to make better choices. I have that same line of thinking when it comes to my girls. It’s about common sense. It’s just as important to be aware of what you are doing and of your choices as it is to be aware of your surroundings and of other people’s intentions. Your actions and your choices, those you have control over. So it’s up to you to make them count.

“I don’t want to raise my daughters believing that boys or men are out to get them. I want them to grow up with love, not fear, in their hearts. Affection and love are so important to our development and life-long happiness. I don’t want to instill this idea that they’re under threat and close them off to beautiful and healthy relationships. Not all boys are aggressors. Not all girls are innocent prey. We need to be honest about the parts we choose to play.

“My girls are a little bit older, so we do talk about different aspects of dating. I let both of them know that they can make the first move – which just means holding hands for my little one and asking a boy to hang out for the older one… but it also applies to kissing and even sex when they’re older. It’s good for girls to know that it’s ok for them to take action too. That’s a positive lesson in so many aspects of life.

“That said, relationships have to be reciprocal and feelings mutual. I teach my girls not to show any ambiguity in how they feel about someone. If someone is a friend, that needs to be clear. You don’t flirt with people if you don’t want to take it further. I tell them: Don’t use flirting as a tool to get what you want – you have other skills for that!

“I’m sure some people will take issue with my approach and label it victim blaming. But it’s not about blaming the victim, it’s about making sure my girls don’t become one. I’m all about boys taking responsibility for their actions and their behaviors but we’d be sexist to think girls don’t need to as well. You don’t get so wasted you can’t use your voice. You don’t leave a party with a stranger. You don’t abandon your pack. And I’m not insinuating that ALL girls had their part to play in aggression. But it doesn’t hurt to teach them common sense ways to minimize their risks.

“I teach my girls to know what rape is so that they doesn’t misidentify it. I teach them to know what constitutes ‘saying no’ so that they actually know how to stand up for themselves. You can’t mislabel your own regret as rape, or your own inability to speak up as aggression on someone else’s part. Communication is key. If you’re going to consent, do it enthusiastically. If you’re going to say no, say it with clarity… There’s no room for being coy.

“Finally, I’ve taught the girls from a very early age that their bodies are theirs. They get to decide what happens to them. They are responsible to taking care of and protecting them. You don’t want to be tickled, say ‘no’ and we stop. You don’t want a kiss or a hug; speak up. You’re an active agent. You’re empowered. Make your choices.”

Fear the Consequences

“As a boy mom, I’m more than nervous about what his dating life will be like,” says Ashanti, mother to 10 year-old Oskar. “We’re going through a cultural shift where what was once ‘traditional romance’ – stolen kisses and that sort of thing that you see in the movies – just aren’t acceptable anymore. I’m totally ok with that, but it does make it more confusing raising a son. We’re in the midst of defining what’s acceptable and what isn’t at the same time that some of our children are reaching that dating age. I’m sure there will be a lot of trial and error going on.

“I’m frightened to one day get a call, letting me know that my son has crossed a line. Just imagining that gets me so scared – and I don’t know if this is good or bad – but I actively talk to him about the possibility of criminal prosecution and jail time if he’s not extra careful about his future relationships.

“On the one hand, I don’t want my parenting style to include fear mongering in any way. But on the other, when you think about it, kids know about murder…They know that murder is bad. They know it’s unacceptable and that the consequences include imprisonment. But they don’t know about rape because of our cultural reluctance to talk about sex. We’re ok with kids imagining one person killing another and understanding that’s evil. But we have this double standard when it comes to telling them that one person cannot sexually force themselves on another. I have no problem going there and explaining that to him if it’s going to mean he doesn’t hurt another human being.

“We’ve also talked a lot about sex in general; in length and on numerous occasions. We talk about how it works physically but also about how it has to be mutual and that you have to get consent before taking any action.

“On top of that, we’ve discussed how he needs to talk about people respectfully…No locker room talk. No ‘this girl is a hot piece of ass’. We talk about what it would feel like for him to be reduced to a body part and how ridiculous and reductive that is.

“I think it’s important to teach kids kindness regardless of which gender they’re dealing with. I tell him: You open the door for your friends when they’ve got their hands full. You help them carry their bags when their load is too great and so on. I’ve raised him as a single mother. He’s seen me work hard and manage everything on my own. I’m not going to negate all that by teaching him that girls are weaker or need special assistance. He needs to respect women, but just as he would anyone else… as peers, as equals.

“In kindergarten, I was shocked to see girls and boys separate into their gendered groups so early in life. I think that’s a big problem in this country. When there are birthdays, playdates, or just kids playing on the yard, kids are separated into girls and boys way too young. My son is an only child. He doesn’t have sisters. I’ve had to work hard to make sure he has close female friends and regular playdates with girls but it’s a lot harder than you imagine to find kids who are willing to bridge that divide. But it’s worth it. Getting that contact with female peers lets him know, that girl or boy, these kids are both your equals. It’s not that giving in to the idea that this one can be your BFF and the other will give you cooties today, kisses tomorrow.

“As part of that, we watch just as many TV shows and movies with central female characters, as those featuring boys. I make sure he reads books written by female authors, or featuring female characters. As women we do this all the time, we’re so used to being able to identify and empathize with male characters… The same doesn’t apply to boys. I try to give him the resources to lead with respect and compassion in his heart.”

Value Your Body, Enjoy It Too

“As a mother to a girl who is now starting to date, this is a daily topic for us,” says Monica, mother to 15 year-old Trish. “Since an early age, I’ve been pretty focused on raising a girl who’s fierce and strong and has a strong sense of self-worth.

“When she was younger, we made sure that if a boy hit her or teased her, we never would say things like ‘Oh, that’s because he likes you.’ Most everybody knows now how detrimental comments like that can be in setting your daughter up to have a pretty warped sense of how boys show affection and what love means.

“But we also made sure that she felt the ‘power of no’ in her daily life. Even from a young age, we showed her respect for her feelings and decisions. If she said ‘no’ to things that affected only herself and her body – no to wearing a certain article of clothing, no to tickling, no to being held – we’d back off right away. We want her to feel valued as a person.

“We also want her to be able to define her space and her boundaries. We always ask before touching her. We respect her boundaries. That means no going in her room without knocking even as a toddler. No helping her in the shower. No helping her put on her clothes… unless she asks. The only musts are for medical reasons. She can’t say no to the doctor examining her in our presence, or to things like getting her blood drawn, taking necessary medications, shots, and the like.

“The other thing that we’ve enforced from an early age is spending time with dad. We have set days when it’s only daddy–daughter and feel that having them spend regular time together helps set the tone for what it means to be loved and respected by a man. Sure, it’s a fatherly love and that’s different but having a strong male role model that never condescends or treats her lesser validates her worth, and it helps her form positive expectations of how she should be treated.

“Since she started dating, we’ve role played what to say or do if she ever finds herself in an uncomfortable situation. That way, she’s prepared. She has the words, the phrases, and actions at the ready to respond to unwanted advances without having to think about it.

“We’ve also talked a lot about Good Touch, Bad Touch… but not in the traditional sense. I’m very aware that what feels good to one person may not to someone else. There are all kinds of touch and all kinds of sex. As part of having her feel comfortable with herself, I also want her to feel comfortable with exploring what feels good to her. Some people like being tickled. Some like getting scared, going on roller coasters, spinning until they’re dizzy… whatever. I don’t want to raise her to feel shame in her preferences later on.

“To know what she doesn’t like, she also needs to know what she actually does like. There are people who like it hard or soft, this way or that. We’re one of the few species that has sex for enjoyment so while I teach her to value her body and enforce her boundaries, I also let her know to enjoy it too.”

How do you teach your kids about giving and getting consent? Any methods you’d like to share?

Tags : confessions   life lessons   relationships   consent   teens   

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