“How can I talk to my child about consent?”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Rachel Dougherty
Thank you so much for your question. Consent is super important, so I’m glad you want to talk about it with your child. Talking about consent can seem difficult, scary, and awkward, and that’s entirely understandable; consent is not something we really see happening in the steamy scenes of our favorite movies, and it’s certainly not something that gets frequently talked about—unless, of course, it’s couched in the context of sexual assault. The silence and negativity surrounding consent makes this conversation intimidating. When you add the fact that talking about consent acknowledges your child’s potential sex life, that intimidation factor can make this conversation seem impossible to navigate, especially in a way that’s comfortable for all parties involved.
But while this may all sound overwhelming, fear not! The dictionary defines “consent” as the permission for something to happen or agreement to do something. We can pile on the qualifiers most universities and organizations add when describing it: consent is given freely, enthusiastically, and soberly. These qualifiers are certainly important, but for now, let’s stick with the basics: consent is giving permission for something to happen.
The best way to teach your child about consent is to begin by teaching them that their consent matters and that they have control over what happens to their body. This concept can be taught to very young children, and, as a perk, it’s really easy to teach without getting into the messiness of talking explicitly about sex. Throughout different developmental phases, this conversation can look quite different. If your child is young enough that you’re still helping them bathe, talking about consent could take the form of you asking for their permission to wash different parts of their body. When they say yes or no, you can respect their choice, indicating that their voice matters. As far as getting their whole body clean at bath time goes, you can empower them to take responsibility for cleaning parts of their body that they don’t want you washing.
Alternatively, maybe your child realizes they don’t like to be hugged by friends or family but would like to experience affection in a different way, maybe through high fives or handshakes. By validating their feelings and advocating for them, you send a clear message that their choice matters. This might mean standing up to grandparents or in-laws on your child’s behalf, but being your child’s advocate when it comes to their consent has a huge payoff. Working through this and advocating for your child has multiple effects: (1) Your child feels empowered to articulate how they want to experience and show affection; (2) You model advocacy for your child, in turn helping them know what it looks like to stand up or intervene on someone’s behalf; and (3) You show your child that you have their back, increasing their feelings of trust and safety within your relationship.
Plain and simple, it’s important that your child knows they are in control of their own body, just like everyone else is in control of their own individual bodies. This is the core idea behind consent from which you can build up. Too often when we talk about consent, our conversations center around asking for someone else’s consent. And though this is extremely important, what perhaps provides a clearer perspective is talking about what it means to give consent. As you help your child feel control and ownership over their body and what happens to it, they can begin to feel like their decisions and what they want is important and worth seeking out or asking for from others.
This conversation is especially important for queer youth. Unfortunately, there’s a culture of shame and silence surrounding queer sex. If we’re going purely off what’s reflected in the media, the dominant narrative is that people should want to have sex in only heterosexual relationships or pairings. We have yet to really learn how to talk about queer sex in high school health classes or how to show it in movies, especially in ways that encourage and model healthy, consensual relationships. Given this lack of representation, there is very little space for queer youth to get comfortable with their sexuality. Queer youth may be ill-equipped to know what they want, let alone how to ask for it. And while you as a parent might not want to do the nitty-gritty “this is how sex works” talk, you have the power to help your child take control of and responsibility for their own body. By starting early with empowering your child to communicate what they want and need, you are preparing them to build healthy and consensual relationships in the future.
Rachel lives and works in NYC but is constantly homesick for Pittsburgh. They are passionate about increasing civic participation, and they are concerned about building equitable access to the public sphere. In their spare time Rachel spends time seeing shows at DIY venues, wrestling with their Jewish spiritual life, and going off-recipe in the kitchen. Follow them on Twitter @active_witness
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