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.