by Laura Young, Youth Advocate, Umbrella
About a month ago, I had the awesome opportunity to visit a local school to talk with some 7th and 8th graders about supporting survivors of sexual violence. It was a heavy topic that I was supposed to help “teach”, but I ended up being taught a lesson or two myself while in class. The lesson that stuck with me the most is on the importance of modeling consent to kids and teens.
Consent isn’t a new topic by any means. Most people think of consent as a term that expresses the importance of receiving a clear and uninhibited “yes” before engaging with an action that is sexual. Coming into class, sex is what I automatically associated the word consent with. However, while engaging with the class, the teacher of the class demonstrated a valuable lesson to me that helped me realized consent is about so much more.
As part of the class, the students were given assigned readings for the activity. One 7th grade student bravely stated that he did not want to read the assigned statement. The teacher took a moment and asked her students “well class, what should I do? What do I need to have before I can ask him to do anything?” All of the students answered in a chorus “consent!”
This moment in class got me thinking about how often adults (including myself) fail to model consent with kids. What does it truly mean to treat them with respect and ask for their consent first? Yes, while there are things that are important for kids to do even if they don’t want to (like eating vegetables, going to the doctors, school etc.) there are also many things that we ask them to do that we could ask for their consent for first. For example, we (hopefully) would not pressure our friends to participate in a game or read a statement that made them feel uncomfortable or force them to give a hug to someone they just met, so why is it ok if we force a kid in our care to do things similar without consent, even if our intentions may not be bad?
As with sexual consent, there are a few variables that I feel are important when we consider asking kids for consent or providing them with choices.
- Let them know what is going to happen in advance. If there is a choice to participate, let them know the choices they could have.
- If you are going to do an activity and you can ask for consent, ask permission in a private place if possible beforehand so that they don’t feel pressured to make a choice that they may not want to.
- Make saying “no” acceptable without fear of your response or resulting negative feelings (shame, embarrassment etc.)
- Even if you are playing together and a child says “no” to an activity (ex: tickling or rough housing) stop whatever you are doing, even if you know that they are joking. If they really want to continue to play, they will ask for more, but this way they know that if they say no, they can expect others (especially an adult) to respect that.
For more reading on this topic check out: Consent Around the Holidays: Watching the Messages We Give to Children and I don’t own my child’s body.
Finally, here’s a great video from Parenting Gently called 4 Ways Parents Teach Kids that Consent Doesn’t Matter!