It’s been said that the shortest words — yes and no — are those which require the most thought.
They’re simple words that communicate a world of information, especially when it comes to physical touch. By paying attention to when we’re a yes or a no to any activity, we’re better prepared to skillfully navigate questions about our boundaries when they come up.
Although consent became a buzzword in the last decade, the idea of bodily autonomy isn’t new. Humans have always sensed that we are in charge of our own bodies. Nobody can touch us or use our bodies in any way without our consent. We can’t be forced to donate blood or be an organ donor, even after we’re dead.
At some level, we all know this intuitively.
So is it still critical to teach kids about consent? And if so, why? To complement our lesson on consent in our lesson library, here are five reasons it’s essential to have the conversation.
1. Violations are too common.
Even though sexual violence has fallen in recent decades, one person on average is still sexually assaulted every 68 seconds in the United States, according to statistics gathered by RAINN, a resource for people who suffer from sexual abuse. And that’s just data on sexual assaults, meaning that milder forms of consent violations such as unwanted tickling or hugging are even more prevalent.
By keeping in mind how common these violations are, parents can get a sense of the urgency behind having conversations on this topic. Even more importantly, they can take steps to prevent violations.
2. Conversations about consent decrease the likelihood of violations.
We’ve all read or heard stories about consent violations — stories where someone says that they didn’t realize that they’d violated someone’s consent or stories where someone says that they didn’t feel they could say no to something they didn’t want. In certain cases, these situations could have been prevented with direct guidance about what consent looks like, including practice around saying no.
As the Harvard Graduate School of Education says, “Our research suggests that a majority of parents and educators aren’t discussing with young people basic issues related to consent. … Yet a large majority of respondents who had engaged in these conversations with parents described them as at least somewhat influential.” Even a simple, frank conversation about how to say yes and no — and why it’s so important to respect the desires of others — can go a long way.
Such conversations can prevent the heartache that comes from sexual assault. By teaching your kids to ask before they touch someone else, you prevent them from violating someone else. By teaching them how to say no, you arm them with the natural ability — formed by muscle memory — to speak out in the event someone uses force or bribery to violate them. But you also arm them in both instances to protect their friends and loved ones.
3. It’s a lifelong practice.
Research also shows that parents should start these conversations when their kids are young. As Lucinda Holt, a sex-ed expert at Rutgers University, says, “If we start having people learn from a young age not only what consent is but to respect another person’s boundaries, that goes a long way in terms of creating a culture where we don’t stand for people hurting one another. We shouldn’t wait until someone is sexually active to teach them about sex and consent.” By practicing saying yes and no to different kinds of touch, we lay the foundation for kids to respect their boundaries and those of others as the stakes get higher. We also help kids feel safe and empowered.
In addition, Sex Positive Families shares that “consent is a life skill that should be practiced long before it has anything to do with sex.” They add, “Children first learn about consent through interactions in their own home, observing how boundaries are communicated, respected, or disregarded in everyday situations. As children grow, the talks deepen to include an understanding of consent within sexual and intimate experiences as well. When children learn about consent and respect for bodily autonomy, they stay safer and better able to navigate interactions with others in healthy ways.” In short, as kids can and should practice consent even before they know what sex is. Consent is a life-long skill to develop.
4. Desire shifts moment to moment.
It’s not enough for kids to be told that they should ask for consent once and leave it at that. Kids should understand that their desires and the desires of other people can and will shift over time. They might say no to one activity and later say yes to that same activity. Same with other people. Help them understand that they can also feel uncertain and say that as well.
Because people’s desires can shift over time, it’s important to walk kids through a variety of scenarios where they practice discerning what they actually want and listening for what other people actually want.
5. You can help kids find their yes.
Conversations about consent don’t have to be (and shouldn’t be!) all about learning how to say no. In fact, consent can help us get clear about what we actually want. This is important because emerging science shows that hugging gives a range of benefits, including better health and higher emotional wellness. Health counselor Christy Kane, Ph.D., suggests that parents frequently give their kids 8-second hugs to increase their oxytocin — especially in a world that feeds them dopamine via devices.
In short, physical contact is essential to our wellbeing, and getting clear about consent can help us ask for it when we need to. We watch out for a feeling of paralysis, knowing that just because kids learn how to say no doesn’t mean they should lean in that direction in all instances. Quite the opposite. When we’re clear about our no, we can be clear about our yes.
To see how to teach consent to kids, including practices you can implement at home, see our consent lesson (for members).