What We're Still Not Teaching Kids About Consent
If I'm remembering correctly, sex ed in the '80s consisted of the following lessons:
-- First grade: Tell someone if a grownup (who isn't a doctor) touches your private parts
-- Fifth grade: You're going to bleed from your private parts one day, catch these free diaper-sized maxi pads as we lob them at your head
-- Tenth grade: You know what sex is, right? Don't do that unless you like making babies. And if you're going to have sex, wear a condom because of AIDS. Good luck!
If you're wondering where the big lessons on consent were, so am I. If I'm being generous, I can conjure up a fuzzy memory of a tenth-grade coach/teacher in belted short shorts telling the boys in the room, "Guys, no means no. I mean it." And that would have been the final word on the subject, because we all thought we were using the same language when it came to consent. Yes was yes, no was no, where's the confusion?
The confusion, as we've mentioned before, is in how pop culture tells men that no really means "maybe, try again," and tells women that if you didn't say no hard enough, you probably didn't mean it in the first place. Maybe work on your communication skills, body language, and drinking schedule for next time, girly. The confusion comes in real-world situations in which body parts are already slippery and engorged and you want this but not that, and you aren't sure how to say you want this but not that. The confusion comes when no one teaches that "maybe," "not yet," "let's just kiss" and *gentle push to create distance* should be treated as "no," full stop.
Consent is sticky and confusing not just because sex itself can be sticky and confusing, but also because we haven't given future sexual beings the language, tools, or authority to communicate what they want out of sex. And yes, when I say "future sexual beings," I mean kids. This is a column about kids and sex.
No, I'm not.
Parents, it's on us to do better by our kids. Because lessons about consent start on Day One.
Teach Your Kids That They Don't Owe Anyone Hugs And Kisses
Day One of Parenthood: So you've got a floppy-headed baby who can't see straight, can't do anything but sleep, cry, poop, and latch (if you're lucky), and is basically a hair scrunchie in human form. Day One isn't the best day to start teaching consent, I guess. Whatever, let's fast-forward.
Skip ahead to Day 730ish. Now you've got a toddler, and this toddler is so effing cute that you're considering renaming them "Pixar." We're talking about chipmunk cheeks, 20 perfect square teeth that aren't crowded or decayed in any way, a big fat Buddha belly accentuated by a onesie that this child has no shame in wearing, turkey drum limbs, and a Frankenstein gait that only makes them more squeezable. I just LOVE TODDLERS SO MUCH. Parents, I want to hug your squishy toddlers.
Also, I'm your problem.
Your job as a parent is to teach your child that that they own their adorable squishy bodies, and that grandmas, aunts, uncles, fun cute adult friends who seem to pose zero harm (like me!) aren't deserving of their hugs just because they're big and nice and want the hugs.
Let's put it this way: When you're a toddler, every other human is a Mountain. Not necessarily the Mountain who gave birth to the Mountain who gave birth to you, just a huge mass of someone who isn't your mom or your dad. For some babies, that distinction is wiped away quickly, and hugs and kisses are as naturally forthcoming as the poop that defies gravity to land mid-back while their parents are trying to enjoy a night at Olive Garden. That's why you, the parent, have to start giving your child options about hugs and kisses as soon as they're big enough to understand "yes" and "no."
Here's a dramatic reenactment of a conversation that's happening somewhere in the world at this very second:
Mom: Give Grandma a hug.
Child: *Frozen, suspicious and belligerent*
Grandma: Awww, can I have a hug? I flew across the country to see you! *Holds flabby arms out*
Mom: Give Grandma a hug or you can go to your room until you're ready to be nice.
Grandma: No, it's OK. *Mimes wiping away fake tears for dramatic effect*
Child: *Gives robot hug*
When I was a little kid, the consequences of disappointing an adult by not giving them physical affection could have ended with a guilt trip, an earlier bedtime, or worst-case scenario, a spanking. When my parents were kids, I'm guessing they were sent to the coal mines if they let down their older relatives in the hugging department.
The point is that we've trained children to think that when it comes to something innocent like hugs or tickling (when the whole point is how much the kid doesn't want it), an adult's feelings are more important than a child's personal space. If you want your kid to say "no" with authority and confidence in the backseat of a driverless car ten years from now, they have to get practice saying no in general. More importantly, they have to know that hurting Grandma or Miss Kristi's (that's what kids call me sometimes) feelings is much less important than listening to their own gut.
By the way, I'm not advocating for adults to glue their arms to their sides and bow in deep respect every time they encounter a toddler. If I get to meet your toddler, I'm going to do what I always do: Sit on the floor and play with them and ask for a hug at the end of the visit. And if they say no or hesitate, I'll back off and maybe ask for a high five instead. I'll be fine. Your job as a parent is to give your kids lots of practice at turning people like me down so that they're really good at saying no when the stakes are way higher.
Grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, cherished friends of children, the same message goes to you. Do not make a child feel guilty for not wanting to give you a hug, even if you gave them a really cool present.
Teach Your Kids That No One Can Hit Them (Not Even You)
Oh, we're going there.
When my kids were little, we had a Biblical(ish) approach to parenting, and discipline included spankings. Back then, my husband and I agreed that spankings (or pops on the bottom, as we called them) were a good tool for teaching a lesson when a child did something that could get them hurt. Running out into the street, for example, would get a pop on the bottom. (And we were usually talking about a weak slap on a diapered booty.) The logic was that the fear of getting a spanking combined with the pain of the spanking would create a memory that would make them never ever want to run into the street again.
Unfortunately, once you've allowed yourself to hit someone as a form of discipline or instruction, you don't always follow your own rules, because you're also human. Did we also give reactionary "spankings" in anger? Yes, once or twice because we'd opened the door to spankings and didn't manage ourselves as well as we should have. Did we give "spankings" on non-diapered bottoms to kids who weren't running out into the street but were mouthing off? Sadly, yes.
I regret allowing spanking in my home because A) spankings allowed my kids to see the very worst version of me, and B) research is revealing that spanking is tied to aggressive behavior, lower self-esteem, and increased mental health problems. I know the Bible says that kids who don't get spanked grow up to be spoiled, but if your best tool for raising nice children is to hit them when they're bad, you maybe shouldn't be raising kids? And maybe stay away from dogs too while we're at it.
Actually, let's drop the word "spank" altogether for a minute, because it's a euphemism for hitting, and we should be honest with ourselves when we hit another person, especially a child. As a child, you're told that hitting other kids is bad and that kids who hit are bullies. But if you've been bad, your parents, grandparents, and sometimes your principal can hit you, and that's OK because they're big and old and in charge. The most basic, fundamental standard of human decency we've come up with throughout human history -- do unto others as you'd have done to you -- doesn't apply to children.
So how do childhood spankings tie into consent in sexual situations? A kid who received spankings goes into adolescence and adulthood with the memory of being physically punished for being disobedient. They know what it's like to get hurt for disappointing someone they love and trust. They know that it's possible for people they care about to hurt them if they do something wrong. Ultimately, they were raised to believe that no one should hurt them unless it's someone they love.
How does that lesson not make its way into the bedroom?
If we want our kids to walk into their first sexual experiences with the confidence to say no if they want to say no, we should start by practicing what we preach in the decades before the moment happens. "No one is allowed to hit you, not even me. You are in charge of your body, all the time, even when you've done something wrong. There is nothing you can do that will make me hurt your body, because that's now how we treat each other."
If you take spankings off the table, your child never gets taught that authority figures are allowed to hurt them if the conditions are right. Or that big people are authorized to apply their own internal logic of when it's OK to hit and when it's not OK to hurt their bodies.
Speaking of authority figures ...
Teach Your Kids That Authority Figures And Heroes Can Be Bad
As of this writing, Larry Nassar, the doctor who used his position to sexually assault at least 120 young gymnasts, has been sentenced to 40-75 years in prison for his crimes. He won't have the opportunity to serve those years until he finishes his 60-year sentence for the child porn charges that came before. I know. I hate him too.
It's important to note here that this Nassar monster doesn't fit neatly in an article about consent, but I'm dragging his sorry name in here anyway because we're talking about parenting, and every parent should know what this man did. Consent is something that happens between two adults who are trying to hash out how far they want to go together. Consent is not a thing when a child is involved, ever. I bring Nassar up because during his trial, his victims weren't only pointing their fingers at him; they shed light on the dozens of moments when the system that was supposed to protect them protected him instead. We're talking about a man who sexually abused little girls while their parents were in the room.
And these weren't regular parents like you and me. These were the kind of parents who would change jobs, move across the country, and invest thousands of dollars into making their children's athletic dreams come true. They reworked their entire lives around their kids. They were like, super parents. But they couldn't tell when a doctor was molesting their babies. Why? Because the very first rule they learned in their sexual education, and the first rule they taught their own kids, was that doctors are allowed to touch private parts.
I bring up Nassar because I can imagine the thought processes of both the victims and the parents in the room when he was committing his crimes. At the heart of their misgivings about his actions was self-doubt, feeling that they were wrong for feeling uncomfortable. This man is a doctor. Self-doubt is also at the heart of every adult encounter in which one person isn't sure of how far they want to go but they don't know how to express themselves. For example, when a woman is on a date with a guy she's liked for a long time and second-guesses herself when he wants to move too fast because he's well-liked and kind.
Self-doubt doesn't emerge fully formed in someone's head out of nowhere. It comes from the stories you tell yourself about yourself, and how much you trust your own feelings. Nassar lasted as a predator for multiple decades because most of us are freaking little kids when it comes to submitting to authority, and Nassar was a doctor, so he was an authority. He lasted because we will do mental gymnastics to avoid confrontation with people who hurt us, and we'd rather suffer than trust our own instincts.
So give your kids some room to doubt authority figures every now and then. Let them explore the concept that grownups can be bad, because yeah, some of them are monsters. Let your kids practice saying "no," like, all the time. You think I'm kidding, but it's shockingly hard to say "no" as an adult, especially to someone you like.
Teach Your Kids To Read And Respect The People Around Them
I can't speak for every other woman out there, but the Aziz Ansari date night story hit me harder than the James Franco stories or accounts of Louis C.K. masturbating in front of female comedians, even though their actions were objectively more disgusting in every way. The Ansari account was painful because his date tied herself into knots as she tried to come up with ways to say "no" without hurting his feelings, but every clue she dropped was met with "yes, but," as if their whole date was an improv game. A woman left his apartment in tears, and he thought they had a great night 24 hours later.
Unfortunately, the story was the best illustration of a consent problem that I've ever seen. One person struggled to say no, and the other person didn't read, see, or hear her struggle at all, or read it and didn't care. While every other entry on the list is a way to help your kid not become a victim, this one is to help your kid not become a person who tries to have sex with someone who's not into it. That's a matter of empathy, and it can be taught.
This starts with modeling empathy over and over and over again. Read your kids' faces and bodies, and show them that they can read their friends' faces as bodies as well. Literally say "Your face looks sad. Are you OK?" Or "Why did your friend go hide under the slide and start crying when you were playing? What happened?" Or "I can tell you're mad at me because I ate all of the Goldfish while you were at school. We can talk about it when you're ready."
If the idea of acknowledging a child's facial expressions and body language out loud over and over again is exhausting, that's because it is. And that's not including the times you're calling them out for the wrong reasons. "Wipe that face off your face" is a favorite expression in my house, because everybody hates grumpy faces. But I can't think of another way to teach kids how to check in with the emotional states of the people around them than to just ... do that. Like, all the time.
Despite what pop culture has taught us, we want boys (and girls) who want to read faces and body language and want to land on the same place as their partners. We want future adults to pride themselves on how attuned they are to the person in front of them, especially when we're talking about sex. We want guys (and girls) who ask "Is this OK?" before they get handsy because that's how much they respect the person they're with, even if they just met.
Parents, don't wait for pop culture to catch up on teaching consent. It's not going to happen any time soon. By the time the next generation of screenwriters figures out how to write sexy scenes that handle consent really well, your kids are already going to be grown.
Feel free to check in on Kristi's emotional state whenever you want over on Twitter.
If you have children yourself and need some help with this, authors are writing children's books geared towards teaching them these very things. Check them out!
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