TEACHING CONSENT TO CHILDREN AND TEENAGERS

DATE

30 April, 2021

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Author: Michael Grose


 

Following the 4 March Justice rallies, families have been urged to talk to their children about consent. Many parents are unsure where to start and how to go about it. Here are some ideas to assist parents in this most important topic.

Start the consent ball rolling from an early age

Consent education begins with adults teaching and modelling respectful treatment related to children’s development stages. Holding discussions about body boundaries, checking in with feelings, respecting the feelings and voices of others, and listening to children’s concerns are the types of behaviours that will help you develop a culture of respect in your family.

Is your home a place where children can talk about any topic? Sexuality and relationship education are subjects that many parents place in the ‘let’s talk about this when you are older’ basket.

Professor Kerry Robinson, who is in the School of Social Sciences and Psychology and the Sexualities and Genders Research Network at Western Sydney University advises parents to be factual when answering children’s questions, emphasising the importance of staying informed about the subject kids are interested in.

In a recent article in The Guardian, she said “…. have set it up early with your child that when they talk about certain things you give open, simple, honest answers, then you set a precedent that you can build on.”

Professor Robinson also advises parents not to fob off children’s questions: “Straight away you’re setting a pattern of not answering and putting it off. Kids learn really quickly that this is a taboo subject. They will talk to their friends about it: they won’t talk to their parents and other adults about it because it’s taboo.”

Teach no means no

Children learn about mutual consent through their play and sharing. A child who doesn’t want to share their toys has a right to be left alone, rather than being scolded to change their mind. A parent who withdraws a privilege in response to a teenager’s poor behaviour shouldn’t be subjected to repeated attempts to negotiate a different outcome. Reinforce with children and young people that a no is not an invitation to ask again.

Emphasise choices

The biggest lesson to reinforce for children and young people is that they have a choice in how they behave, and how they react. The young person who blames alcohol for sexual assault has neglected the role that choice plays in their decisions. Blaming alcohol, the dress or the demeanour of another person are older versions of ‘it’s not my fault because he/she made me do it’ that children so often use when asked to account for poor behaviour.

Framing behaviour as a choice is a central consent strategy for children of all ages. A young child who shares a toy with a friend can be told, “Good choice Harry. Now you can have fun together.” A primary school child who completes their homework assignment early can be reminded “Now you’ve got plenty of time to relax. Smart choice.” The teenager who quietly helps you prepare a meal can be told, “You could have done anything after school, but you chose to help me. I appreciate that.”

Teach kids to seek consent

While teaching kids the right to say no is a central consent message, children and young people should also develop the habit of seeking consent from others. “Ask your sister if it’s okay for you to play that game next to her.” “Ask grandma if she feels like a cuddle right now.” Permission-seeking is another piece in the respectful relationships puzzle that you can reinforce with kids.

Model consent

The use of consensual language is a community concern. A grandparent may need to be respectfully reminded to ask young children if they’d like a kiss or hug. Similarly, a relative should abide by a young child’s wishes if they ask them to stop tickling or playing with them. A doctor should ask a child, “I’m going to take your temperature. Is that okay?” It’s up to adults to frame requests in ways that children feel safe and comfortable.

Fathers step up

Dads can’t leave consent and sexuality education to mothers, which still appears to be the case in many families. Fathers can help their daughters develop the confidence to say no by regular interactions with their daughters and encouraging them to be assertive. If they feel comfortable telling you to stop a game, they are more likely to feel comfortable saying no to other males in their lives later in life. Open the door to conversations about sexuality, relationships and consent with your teenage daughter, and she’ll know she has a willing ally in you.

Fathers can model respectful behaviours for their sons through their treatment of women at home, and in the community at large. Start by calling out displays of derogatory behaviour towards women by men or young people. Reinforce in your sons that the standard of behaviour they ignore is the standard of behaviour that they accept. There are many powerful lessons that boys can absorb from their fathers.

In closing

The best age to start teaching your children about consent is when they are young. The second-best age is whatever age they are right now. Consent education is too big an issue to ignore or leave to schools to manage. It’s something we all have to commit to if we want real change to occur.


 

Kylie Wolstencroft
Wellbeing Coordinator / Registered Psychologist

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