The recent Jian Ghomeshi trial has the topic of consent on everyone’s mind. How can parents teach children about sexual consent so that abuse never happens? If you wait until your child is sexually active, you’ll wish you had started the process when they were younger. And when I say younger, I mean the lessons can begin when they are toddlers.
That may sound shockingly young to you. You probably think toddlers don’t need to think about sex, let alone about sexual consent. It sounds crazy, right?
However, positive sexual consent is really the application of setting respectful personal boundaries for one’s self and honouring other people’s boundaries. This means nurturing a feeling of respect for yourself and others, knowing how to be empathetic and how to watch for social clues. Teaching positive consent means building up the bravery to speak up, trusting your inner voice and ignoring societal pressures.
"If you wait until your child is sexually active, you’ll wish you had started the process when they were younger."
I think you’re getting the idea that this is not a short lecture in health class where you tell boys not to have sex with drunk girls, or girls not to get drunk least they get abused. It’s a whole lot more complex than that. Here are some pragmatic ideas that parents can implement to best ensure their children seek out healthy consensual sexual activities, whether they be playing doctor in kindergarten, sharing a tent at boy scouts, or going on a third date in university.
Toddlers and preschoolers
It is during these early years of life that a child develops their ideas about themselves, their worth and lovability. These early beliefs guide them for the rest of their lives (unless challenged by trauma, religious epiphanies or therapy). To help your child establish a positive self-concept, be sure to never shame, humiliate or use corporal punishment. These all leave lifelong wounds to a child’s budding self-esteem.
Teach them the names of their body parts by using the correct terms.
Never force them to hug or kiss anyone they don’t want to – not a grandparent nor a friend. What kind of a message does it send when we say, “Do something intimate you don’t want to do”?
Don’t override their internal “no” feelings by making them take “just one more bite of dinner.” Instead, tell them it’s their body and they know best how full they are. It’s good to train them to listen and honour the signals and messages from their body.
Never tickle or roughhouse a child who is saying, “NO. Stop.”
"Teaching positive consent means building up the bravery to speak up, trusting your inner voice and ignoring societal pressures."
Teach your child to speak up and use their words to tell friends “I don’t like that” or “that’s not okay” when someone takes their toys or if a playmate hits them.
Teach them to watch for other people’s reactions and facial clues. Does it look like your friend liked that? Do you think your friend's face is saying you are hugging them too hard? Read books and ask, “How do you think he is feeling?”
Explain that everyone is entitled to personal space which is like a bubble. Some people have a big bubble and some have a small bubble, but you must respect their bubble space either way.
Teach children to wipe and wash their own genitals.
Explain there is nothing shameful about our bodies, but there are private activities that are different from public activities.
Teach them that if a little voice in their head is saying, “No, I don’t like this feeling. I am scared or nervous or frozen,” say it out loud and make the other person stop.
Teach children that only adults help other adults. If an adult needs your help, seek out a parent or teacher or another adult. Adults help adults. Period.
Elementary school years
As children get older, they begin to learn social norms outside the family. Sadly, our culture still generates sexist messages and sexualizes our children.
Discuss the messages portrayed about gender stereotypes in the media with your kids. For example, discuss the lack of female characters in their story books, video games and movies. When women and men are depicted, what stereotypes are being promoted?
Discuss what healthy relationships actually look like and identify signs a relationship is unhealthy. In respectful relationships you should feel good about yourself. You should also feel you have a voice and not feel demeaned or pressured in any way.
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Discuss what it means to be “popular” and how that compares to character traits that really do matter.
Prove to your child that you love them just the way they are. They are lovable and don’t need to prove themselves to you or anyone.
Discuss the changes that occur in puberty – socially, psychologically and physiologically. Buy them books if you find the topic hard to discuss. Don’t allow their peers to be the most important source of their knowledge in this area.
Discuss teasing. Hitting others in the genitals, pinching nipples, snapping bra straps or slapping butts is neither funny nor appropriate.
Never laugh if you hear them tell a sexist joke or comment. Let them know that it is offensive. If they start a joke that may have the potential to be offensive, interrupt them and say, “Is this sexist?” If they say “yes,” say “never mind – I don’t want to hear it.”
Share the legal definition of consent and familiarize them with the law:
Explain that people change their minds ALL the time and consent is an ongoing check-in. Here is a great video comparing consent for sex to consent for drinking a cup of tea:
Discuss partying and the effects of alcohol, drugs and other elicit substances on behaviour, judgement, perception and decision-making. Ask your teen if they know the signs to look for when someone is drunk, stoned or high and then ask them how they would determine if it was okay to kiss or fondle someone in this state.
When there is a news report on a case of rape, abuse, harassment or other non-consensual behaviour, ask your teen for their thoughts and opinions, then share your own.
Explain concisely what you mean when you say you should get consent and give your children the actual language or scripts to rehearse:
• I’d like to _____ with you, if you also want to?
• Does this feel good? Do you like it when I do this?
• Do you want me to take off my shirt? Can I take off your pants?
• I want to check in – are you enjoying this? I want to be sure before we go any further. Do you want to go further?
Remind them that each sexual encounter requires them to keep asking. What is okay today may not be okay tomorrow. Don’t assume – check in with your partner.