If you lived in the US last month and turned on a television, computer, radio, or smart phone, it was hard to avoid the gut wrenching political drama that unfolded around the nomination of our most recent addition to the Supreme Court.
Watching the history-altering confirmation hearings as I did left me emotionally drained and, to be frank, angry. Setting aside the argument around whether or not the justice should have been confirmed, or how brutal the process was, one thing that strikes me (and the only topic that is really appropriate for a blog of this type) is that our efforts to understand and educate our youth on the issue of consent are far from adequate.
If we are to take any important, non-political, message away from the national debate, in my mind it is the profound need to teach our kids about consent earlier and more often.
Some may find it inappropriate or premature for a superintendent of a district that only serves preschool through eighth grade students to address the issue of teaching consent. I couldn’t disagree more. While education about consent looks different at younger ages, it is just as important as discussing it with our high school and college aged children; in fact, one could argue, teaching about consent in high school may be too late. Until young men and women know how to give and receive consent for their actions, the culture that leads to unwanted sexual and non-sexual aggression will not change.
So what do we do?
Considering that the age group most likely to be assaulted begins at the age of 12, consent education must start early. There are compelling developmental reasons for teaching consent at very young ages, even in preschool. At the age of three, there are few if any gender differences in how children receive information about their bodies and their right to control who touches them. And preschoolers are equally comfortable saying “no” to an unwanted touch. Yet by the age of ten, children in general are more concerned about hurting their peers’ feelings than expressing their own. While not always true, girls are more likely to put others’ perceived desires ahead of their own, and boys are less understanding of why someone else might not enjoy something that they themselves enjoy. Waiting until these attitudes have developed makes teaching agency over one’s body and the practice of giving and expecting consent more difficult. Some schools and teachers are even engaging in lessons on consent; maybe you read this recent story of a California teacher designing consent lessons for her young students.
It’s Not Just About Touch
Especially for young children, consent isn’t exclusively about physical touch. Understanding consent is really about respecting boundaries and knowing that you don’t always get what you want. When we tell our kids they can’t have a second cookie or watch another show, we are giving them a boundary and an opportunity to respond appropriately to not getting their way. How our kids learn to deal with these minor disappointments informs how they will handle bigger negotiations later in life. You’ve heard it a thousand times, but kids who seldom hear the word “no” will struggle in the “real world” where “no” is a common and acceptable response. The same goes for kids who don’t experience the impact of failure; they won’t be equipped to experience failure in higher stakes situations as they mature. I don’t advocate a long list of rules, or fabricating disappointments just for the sake of teaching a lesson, but be mindful that kids who get away with everything when they’re young, expect the same when they’re older.
Broaching Consent as a Parent
Parents who model ways for their children to give and receive appropriate affection are well on their way to raising children who respect the boundaries of others, and know how to advocate for their own desires. We’ve all experienced the two or three year old who just has to be on top of us all the time - and it’s completely okay to tell that child, even our own, that we can sit close but don’t want a hug or cuddle right now. They are learning that they can’t have everything they want all the time, and also the words and non-verbal cues to use to communicate when they don’t want something.
Probably one of the biggest opportunities for us to teach and practice consent lies in how we require or ask our kids to respond to those we know well. In my own family, I have a child who is not naturally physically affectionate. I struggled with this because I am affectionate by nature and want our family and friends to feel loved by and connected to our children. For a couple of years I struggled when, for example, our son’s grandparents would visit and upon leaving would desire a hug from their grandson. Like many of us do in this situation, I would try every technique short of physically forcing a hug. Try as I might, nothing worked. It just made it harder. I felt bad. I felt bad for his grandparents. I felt bad for him.
I soon realized that I was the problem. I unintentionally reinforced that my son’s consent didn’t matter. I was sending a message that he didn’t have a choice in who and when he hugged. I was clearly saying that other people’s feelings were more important than his. That wasn’t okay with me. My efforts quickly changed from trying to control him to helping his grandparents understand who is he and how he’s wired; turns out, they knew. The problem was mine, pure and simple.
Whether it is hugging, kissing, cuddling, or (and this is a big one) tickling, it is my belief that we must elevate the voices of our children. These three steps can be the most powerful lesson in consent you can offer your child.
Of course, the best way of teaching these lessons is to model them ourselves. Next time we see our nephew crying, try this, “Awe, buddy, that must be so hard. May I give you a hug?” Simply asking a child if he or she would like to give or have a hug is a huge step in showing them how to have control over their body.
Consent is a Life-Long Lesson
As any parent of a high school student can tell you, issues of consent are squarely in the minds of our teenagers and young adults. Beyond what we can do as parents of young children, the lines of communication need to remain open in high school, college, and beyond. Our sons and daughters should have safe, non-judgemental places to talk about consent. There are great resources out there. Need help in bringing the topic up with your teenager or young adult, start with this outstanding video about a cup of tea. While not for young audiences, it’s a terrific illustration of consent and a great conversation starter for families with older children.
It’s About Being a Decent Person
Fundamentally, understanding and practicing consent is really just part of being a compassionate, empathetic person. All the consent education in the world won’t matter if our kids don’t put it to use, so it’s also a good idea to make sure our kids have exposure to situations that encourage them to grow up to be good people. Showing care towards others, even pets and dolls, is a way the youngest of children start developing compassion and empathy. Reading books with a variety of characters, having our kids help with chores, and making sure it’s not just girls we ask to help care for younger kids - boys need to be expected and trained to help with sibling care, too - are all ways to give children opportunities to show compassion and understanding. Kids who volunteer and work as counselors for younger kids are much better equipped in their adult lives to respect and show kindness toward others.
We are in this together. Believe me, I’m right in this parenting journey with you. I get it wrong most of the time. We all want our kids to grow up in a safer, more respectful, more equitable society...often in spite of the mistakes we parents make. While it was hard to watch the confirmation testimony and I’m still struggling with the conversations and thoughts it brought up, we can use the experience as a catalyst for helping our kids, even our very youngest, learn important lessons to help them make better choices in a complicated world.
More for those who are interested…
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.