Have You Played The Consent Game? (Advice for Talking Consent with Kids, Pre-Teens, and Teenagers)

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If there’s one thing I missed in my high school sex-ed class, it was a detailed discussion of consent. “Don’t rape” was just sort of…understood to be the right thing to do, but everything shy of a violent assault ended up in a very silent gray area. Even some of my friends who were sexually assaulted (often while passed out and unable to agree) were almost more concerned about their parents finding out how much they had to drink, as if they were somehow to blame.

I’ve found that teaching consent to little kids is pretty easy — in our household, no one is forced to give hugs, kisses, etc.,…and sometimes I can even spot a teachable moment in real time (for example, when Pax said he was going to “force” his friend Daisy to try some restaurant’s spaghetti and I freaked out, “DAISY GETS TO DECIDE IF SHE WANTS TO TRY IT!! YOU DON’T HAVE THE RIGHT TO MAKE DAISY TRY –”  (Ok, maybe easy isn’t the word I’m looking for.)

But as our kids move closer to adulthood, the topic of consent becomes very complex. How do you teach consent without removing that something-something that can be…just…hot? For example, the Best Kiss Of My Life was in college when Mike (now my hubs) just read the moment right, grabbed me, and kissed me like he meant it. If he had paused to be like, “Can I kiss you now” or — god forbid — “Do I have your consent to kiss you?” that kiss would NOT have been so good. It turns out that I’m the girl that likes to be grabbed and kissed sometimes. And that’s gotta be OK! So how the heck do we navigate through this tricky topic ourselves, much less teach it to our kids???

It turns out I’m not the only one struggling. Did you catch the letter from Catherine Deneuve questioning if #MeToo had gone too far — if Americans weren’t being too puritanical or totalitarian equating terribly clumsy attempts at seduction with rape and sexual assault? After all, how are people supposed to flirt or seduce one another in this environment? Is it possible to teach our kids consent without throwing a wet blanket on their sex lives?

How to Talk Consent with Kids

Obviously, I needed a far more nuanced approach than screaming about spaghetti in a restaurant. Which is where my friend Kim Cavill comes in.

Kim, long-time readers may recall, wrote this powerful essay about finding her power after sexual abuse — while rocking a Wonder Woman bikini. It’s one of the most amazing pieces we’ve had the honor of publishing here on The Mom Edit. Additionally, Kim is a writer and teacher who blogs at Tea and Intimacy; if anyone can talk consent and passion, it’s Kim.

So. We reached out last week, asking Kim for a few practical ideas to teach consent to our littles — whether they’re small, pre-teen, or — sob! — teenagers.  

Kim: It’s good to hear from you! I totally get where your head is at. It’s been rough. I’m getting a lot of parents asking the exact same question. In fact, I spoke to Heidi Stevens at the Trib about it last week.

The first part you mentioned about no one being forced into physical affection, is really important. I totally relate to your example about Pax and his friend Daisy; it’s great you’re being so clear about your expectations.

Other parents have contacted me confessing they’re (understandably) terrified about how to raise children in this time of revolutionary change, but I don’t think people can parent effectively from a place of fear. I know I can’t. I struggle with this in ways related to childhood/adolescent trauma. For example, the other day my eight-year-old hit my six-year-old. Because I grew up in a violent, abusive household, my instincts are to shift into authoritarian shouting and threats at the first sign of even the mildest physical contact to force compliance. My fear leads me to overestimate threats and, therefore, overreact, which in turn forces my children to manage my feelings.

When I feel like I’m parenting from a place of fear, I take it as a sign to put down whatever it is I’m doing or talking about, admitting to my kids I feel afraid, and making a date to come back and revisit when I’ve worked through my fear. I think of it as modeling self-regulation, which becomes a big part of consent conversations in the teenage years.

There are some excellent online resources for this basic consent message, which can help. I highly recommend the videos by Amaze.org. They have several about consent in increasing complexity. This is their video for young ones. For middle schoolers and up, there is the famous “Tea and Consent” video, too.

Reading the Cues: Verbal & Non-verbal

As for that second part of your question, I’ve got some suggestions. I totally get where you’re coming from with that hot kiss. Consent doesn’t have to be a process that shuts down romance or spontaneity, unless you’re a person that really doesn’t like romance or spontaneity, in which case…that’s the point…I tell teens that consent can look like “Can I take your bra off?” “Can I take your pants off?” if people want it to, but it can also be as simple as two questions: “Do you want me” and the follow up, “How do you want me”? The tricky part is talking about nuance. Let’s take what you wrote:

For example, the hottest kiss of my life was in college when Mike (now my hubs) just read the moment right, grabbed me, and kissed me.

That kiss was probably hot for a lot of reasons, however, I want to focus on this: “read the moment right”

I think that’s the part you’re struggling to talk about, which makes sense because most of us aren’t used to talking about that part of relationships, especially with our kids. Yet, this is exactly the kind of information that studies show teenagers are absolutely desperate to talk to their parents about: how do you read the moment?

I have a lot of answers for this question, but I want to start with a game. You can play it as a family during a meal. You can call it the consent game, or if you’re shy about using that word, the communication game.

The Consent Game

First round: With everyone sitting around several dishes of food, explain that each person needs to say the name of another person and ask them to pass a dish. If the other person agrees, they say ‘yes’ and pass the dish, then it becomes their turn to ask someone else. If the person being asked does not agree to pass the food, they say ‘no’ and the person who asked is free to ask someone else. It feels really stupid and makes kids laugh, but demonstrates that verbal communication is the clearest and easiest to understand, especially if people don’t know each other very well.

Second round: No one is allowed to talk. Now, you have to “seduce” (or you can use the word “convince” if it feels better) the food out of someone with facial expressions, eye contact, and body language, including gestures. This will also make kids laugh because everyone will look ridiculous. It also illustrates that we use our bodies to send consensual signals to one another, but they’re sometimes harder to understand than verbal words. Essentially, you are teaching your sons how to read the non-verbal information that Mike read before he went in for that kiss.  

Third round: No one is allowed to talk, gesture, or otherwise communicate with their bodies, except for eye contact. Request a person pass you a dish of food only with eye contact. This will be very hard, illustrating the difference between eye contact with no context, and the non-verbal communication in the second round. Once everyone is laughing or frustrated and you’ve gotten the point across, the game ends. 

One more suggestion: Model handling rejection. Perhaps agree with your husband beforehand for you to take turns strategically rejecting physical affection from the other in front of your kids every once in a while. You can go in for a hug, Mike could say, “I love you, Shana, but I don’t want a hug right now. Can we do that later?” then model for your kids how you would like them to handle that situation, themselves (“Oh, I didn’t realize. Well, I feel disappointed, but I understand”). You can also do the reverse, rejecting a kiss from Mike so he can model how to handle it.

Recommended Kid-Friendly Videos About Consent

Consent: It’s as Simple as Tea

consent for kids

 

Thanks for sticking this one out with us, Gang. It’s such an important topic. I’d really love to know how you deal with this issue in your family. Also, we’re on the lookout for well-sourced books on the same topic, so send ’em our way if you know of any.

Kim is heading to New York City on November 2nd for How To Raise A Kid: A HuffPost Parents Conference (get tickets here — I just got mine!). She’ll be on their sex and consent panel, and running two workshops to facilitate conversations between parents about teaching these sorts of subjects. Kim was also featured in their piece “How Sex Educators Talk to their Sons about Consent” a few months ago. 

Kim, thank you so freaking much for taking the time to talk with us about this tricky, tricky topic. Your thoughtful, nuanced, and real approach is so refreshing. People like you make us all better parents.

xo,
S

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About Author

Shana founded The Mom Edit in 2008. She lives with the love of her life (his name's Mike) and their two crazy boys in downtown Philadelphia. She loves a good styling challenge (her engineering side shows eventually), appreciates kindness, and usually picks scotch over wine, sneakers over stilettos, and denim-underwear, always.

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20 Comments

  1. I forget where I first saw this sentiment but I think it sums things up well: “Consent is too low a bar. Teach them to hold out for enthusiasm.”

    It’s a cute soundbite but I think it also captures something that makes the “reading the moment” simpler. Someone who is enthusiastic vs not enthusiastic is easier to read. Uncertainty might not read as refusal, for example, but it definitely wouldn’t read as enthusiasm.

    My kids are still little enough that “my body!” usually just comes up when they’re trying to avoid hair washing (anyone else encounter that one??). For older kids though, maybe worth pointing out that direct verbal consent is a good rule if anyone has been drinking. Leave the sexy body language consent for when judgement isn’t impaired. I hope some parents of older kids will comment because I can still barely imagine mine being teenagers and so I really have no idea how these discussions will actually play out.

  2. My sons are still small but I’m so glad you wrote about this because it’s something I’ve been thinking about and wondering how to start at a young age. You made me realize we’ve already started it with the “you don’t have to hug and kiss” rule. But I like the game for lots of reasons, especially since one of my boys isn’t great at understanding his facial cues.
    Thanks!

  3. I’ve heard that saying and I love it. You’re absolutely right, consent is too low a bar when we’re talking about sexual ethics. As I tell my kids and my students, “Consent makes sex legal, it doesn’t make it good.”

  4. A quick note of clarification – most state laws (although not all) include sex when someone is too incapacitated to consent as a form of sexual assault. Like your comment that your friends were just “taken advantage of”, many young adults genuinely don’t understand that you can’t have sex with unconscious people. It’s a crime. So maybe we can start the consent conversation at step one: your partner must be awake and coherent enough to understand what you are asking for.

  5. Quoting you: “Even some of my friends who were assaulted (or — more commonly — taken advantage of while passed out)…”

    Being taken advantage of while passed out IS BEING SEXUALLY ASSAULTED.

    I applaud your efforts in addressing this vital topic but right there, in that first paragraph, is language that misses the point. I don’t think that’s what you meant, but it is what you said. Perhaps an edit is in order? How about “Even some of my friends who were assaulted (many of whom were taken advantage of while passed out)”?

  6. As the mother of three boys (14 year old, 9 year olds), this topic is so important. One of my friends has taught her boys to ask permission…’can I hold your hand,’ ‘can i kiss you’, etc. It’s also what I’ve been teaching my boys as well. But as I think more about it, it doesn’t really give girls (women) any power. Maybe it’s better to say/ask ‘I’d like to hold your hand. Do you WANT me to?’

    Who cares if it’s not spontaneous?!

  7. Thank you. Came here to say the same thing. Someone who is passed out can’t consent to anything. This is absolutely assault.

  8. Tickling is also a good analogue to teach kids about consent. Like sexual encounters, the signals can be super confusing. The tickled person, who wants you to stop, is saying “Stop! Don’t!” but at the same time, they’re laughing and smiling. For the tickler, it’s really hard to stop. Even though the tickled person is begging for you to stop, hearing them laugh is so rewarding you ignore their pleas.

    I can remember the blinding rage I used to feel as a child, being tickled on and on even though I begged in every way I could imagine for it to stop. I wished I could stop the giggling, but it was impossible, and no one would hear my words.

    You don’t have to sit down and have a tickling lecture. You just have to repeat, in each encounter (you’d be surprised how often it happens), that “When someone says stop, you have to stop.” and then intervene if they don’t. It teaches the tickler a powerful lesson that they must listen to someone else’s words no matter what (even when the message is mixed!), and teaches the tickled person a powerful lesson that their words matter. If someone ignores them, that person is in the wrong, not them.

    I promise, respecting others doesn’t stop the fun. My daughter, who actually likes to be tickled, will lift her arms and shriek “again! again!”, and when she says “okay, I’m done”, then we’re all done.

  9. Allisen, I love the tickling analogy.

    Along with emphasizing the idea that people get to choose for themselves in all kinds of situations, we also highlight that people can change their minds at any time in all kinds of situations. Thanks for such a spot-on read for parents.

  10. Well….the point I was trying to make is that back in the ‘ol days’ a distinction was made between the two. I guess I assumed that it’s pretty obvious to all of us NOW that being taken advantage of while passed out is, in fact, assault. But in the context of my high school health class….this distinction was never addressed, and we didn’t necessarily treat it as such. Wrong? Absolutely. But in any case, it sounds like you and others missed my point. So we can change the wording.

  11. Shana is right that there has been a big shift in sex education here in the US in the last decade, though a lack of federal standards means many schools/districts still get abstinence-only sex ed, or no sex ed at all. This shift plays out many ways, one being our aging policy-makers’ general lack of knowledge, and another being a widespread re-processing of past trauma. It is painful to realize something you’d tried to forget, something you thought was normal, was wrong. Personally, it took me several years to come to terms with my own experiences and recognize them as sexual violence, and many more years to accept the violence was not my fault.

    Let’s be clear: a person who is unconscious or incapacitated absolutely cannot consent to sexual activity. Additionally, drinking and drug use makes communication about consent much more difficult. This means engaging in sexual activity while under the influence, or with someone under the influence, is very high risk and should be avoided. In the case of incapacity, sex is both immoral and illegal.

  12. While this is important, these discussions with kids are just one part of it. The bigger premise is be kind and treat others as you want to be treated; it’s old school but they call it the golden rule for a reason. If you only talk about consent within context of sex it’s still centered around the explicit goal of sexual gratification, i.e. how to ask to get what you want (sexual gratification) without getting in trouble. If we don’t teach our children to be respectful, to show kindness, to practice delay gratification, to put down the tablets and LOOK and interact to learn facial cues, then the consent talk is in a vaccum. So my boy at some point has to go home and take a cold shower, so what, that won’t kill him. I want him to take the time to get to know a girl, know her name, and always be aware that even if he doesn’t love her, her parents love her and she is cherished and should be treated with respect. It’s not about getting something, it’s about arriving together. As mothers our sons first learn about women from us. Do we require their respect in that we ask them to contribute with chores around the house? Do we require respect when they talk to us with please and thank you? Do we require them to show respect to their siblings and teach them empathy and awareness? That’s where it starts and is on going until they leave the house.

  13. It broke my heart when my high school aged son said to me “mom-it doesn’t even matter if you get consent anymore. She could decide she did not want to do it in the middle and I would STILL be in trouble. Or she could decide she didn’t want to do it AFTER we were done and I would be in trouble.” He also said “I can be a perfect gentleman and the girl could STILL make up something about me.” I am now not even talking about consent with my boys. For me its about abstinence and distrust. I tell me boys quite frequently to not trust any girl until they are out of college. I hate that I have to ruin what should be a beautiful time of discovery for them but the stakes are way too high now.

    • Alexis L. Richardson on

      Hi Mallory,
      This is interesting view point, and perhaps one that TME will decide to explore another day. In the meantime, two amazing women have recently written about this exact concern. Reader Kim (and Sex Education Teacher) recently wrote this (which I highly recommend): I’m afraid for my sons:. And Celeste Headlee, a journalist and expert on civic discourse recently composed this: Sexual Harassment: Safety is Our Common Goal:. I hope they provide some perspective.
      xo, Lex

  14. This comment is so wrongheaded and hard hearted. If you think that teaching your sons that “until college” women are not to be trusted, you are not giving them a chance to develop relationships that are based in mutual respect and that acknowledge that consent is tricky but ultimately worth negotiating every single time.

    I’m not sure how the above comment just sits here for 2 days without response by someone from TME. As the comments above show, we should discuss and challenge and correct each other until we understand fully, until we can help our sons and daughters feel clear on how to be sure any sexual contact is wanted by both parties. The person here has disparaged women and girls as out to ruin boys’ lives.

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