In our Back to School series, Mashable tackles the big issues students face, from mental health to representation to respectful communication. Because returning to the classroom is about more than buying school supplies.
Consent is one of those words that can have even the most well-intentioned parents squirming. It’s simultaneously important to talk about, and hard to discuss.
Still, consent is a vital part of any sex education conversation. And the start of a new school year — a time for fresh beginnings, new friendships, and new experiences — can be the perfect time to bring it up with your children.
Dr. Elizabeth Schroeder, who consults parents on this topic, says consent isn’t a one-and-done conversation or an item to be checked off a to-do list, though.
If we only give kids “the talk” once, we won’t cement the importance of consent in their heads, Schroeder explains. She also acknowledges that, developmentally speaking, young people need repetition, reinforcement, and concrete examples to retain information. To that end, if parents can connect what they teach in the beginning of the school year to real-life examples that crop up as the year progresses, it increases the chance they’ll understand and retain these lessons, Dr. Schroeder says.
It’s also important to remember that teaching kids about consent isn’t always just about sex. Rather, it’s about having control of your body. As such, what you teach them around this will change as they grow up.
The topic is of utmost importance because many schools don’t even discuss it with students. As of May 2019, only 21 states and D.C. “include references to consent or healthy relationships in their sex education standards,” to the , a nonpartisan policy institute.
Mashable spoke with Schroeder and other sex education experts to learn how parents can navigate the consent conversation and keep their kids happy and healthy.
1. Use the right words.
It’s common for parents to teach their children their body parts early on. But some parents may avoid using medically accurate terms for their children’s genitalia, or use pet names because they’re embarrassed or think their child is too young for these terms. But the anxiety parents may feel about using anatomically correct words like “penis” and “vulva” can be transferred to children, Dr. Schroeder says.
“They get the message, ‘oh this is a bad thing,’ or ‘something I should be anxious about,'” she explains.
Instead, parents should help their children name and identify their genitalia to introduce these basic terms, says Dr. Schroeder says. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends doing this when children are between 3 and 5. The conversation can be as simple as integrating these words with other body parts by saying, “These are your eyes, this is your nose, this is your vulva, this is your penis.”
Topics around sex and relationships build on each other. Without knowing these basic terms first, it’s harder for children to grasp more abstract topics, like consent, Dr. Schroeder says.
It’s also important to emphasize that no one should be touching those parts except when a doctor needs to examine their genitalia for their health (parents should always make sure they are present in these situations) or you as their parent are washing their body.
Dr. Schroeder also recommends encouraging your child to come to a trusted adult if they are touched inappropriately.
2. Model consent in everyday interactions.
Parents should teach consent during activities like bath time or when interacting with relatives.
Melissa Pintor Carnagey is a sex educator and social worker who founded , an organization that teaches parents, adults, and sexual health advocates about sexual health topics. She regularly models consent with her own family. This teaches her children that no one is entitled to anyone else’s body and that they deserve to be heard, no matter their ages.
To that end, Pintor Carnagey encourages parents to foster a culture where questions like “May I give you a hug?” and “May I give you a kiss?” are normal and frequent questions. Pintor Carnagey says her family asks one another for the type of touch they want and no one assumes or expresses that they feel entitled to give or receive any affection. This practice will help children establish their own physical boundaries and recognize the boundaries of others at an early age.
Of course, there are times when parents have to do things against the wishes of their children, like get them vaccinated, says Amy Lang, a sex education expert. But, she says, for most other situations when parents need to touch their children, they can ask, “Hey, can I do this?” This will establish that people must ask before placing their hands, or any other part of their body, on anyone else.
3. Use media as a teaching tool.
A sit-down lecture on consent might not be the most engaging way to help children understand how to navigate consent. On the other hand, while television shows and movies often do not depict healthy consent, Pintor Carnagey says you can still use them to your advantage. She often finds examples in media where consent is depicted in an unhealthy way and creates lessons around this.
Pintor Carnagey also recommends parents mute television shows and movies while watching with their children and ask how they think each character feels. This can help children learn to recognize non-verbal cues, such as when someone is uncomfortable or happy.
Television shows and movies don’t have to be the only source of media around consent either. Although most children probably do not find educational videos as binge-worthy as traditional entertainment, parents can use them knowing they’re a trusted resource.
4. Prepare your talking points and use specific language
It’s important to have talking points you can rely on during difficult conversations. The more prepared you are the better, and the more likely you’ll stay on topic.
For example, Lang says that kids don’t often understand words adults use every day. She cites the word “appropriate,” saying parents should throw it out the window when talking about consent. Instead, parents should use words like “OK,” as there will likely be no confusion.
This can be as easy as saying, “It’s not OK for anyone to touch your body if you do not want that. Likewise, it’s never OK for you to touch someone else’s body if they do not want you to do so.”
To explain the definition of consent, Lang recommends parents use language like, “Consent means everyone agrees. Everyone says ‘yes…’ if one person says ‘yes’ and the other person says ‘no’, then the ‘no’ always win.”
When discussing boundaries, Lang says parents can also use phrases like, “You have the right to say no to someone, if they even want to give you a hug,” and “It’s not OK or safe to play games with private parts. If you play a game with a kid and it makes you feel uncomfortable, scared, weird, that includes pinching, poking, you can let me know.”
When you decide your child is mature enough, you can talk to them about if they’re ready to have sex, trusting their partners, staying safe, using birth control, sexual consent, and making decisions.
It’s also OK if your kid grumbles and says they’ve heard this all before, says Dr. Schroeder. This just means what you’ve taught is sticking.
5. Train your child to trust their intuition and feelings — especially girls.
As a society, we often disregard how children feel. Pintor Carnagey references when we tell a child they have to eat even when they say they’re full. Validating your child’s feelings about their body from day one, on the other hand, teaches children they have a voice and a right to their bodies just like adults do, she explains.
“When I hear parents talking about consent and even teachers talking with kids, they tend to focus on cis-gender girls, saying ‘this is how you can effectively say no,'” Dr. Schroeder says.
For Schroeder, this approach is problematic because it places the onus on girls. This takes away the responsibility from the people who violate consent and can teach girls to doubt their intuition about their bodies.
Dr. Schroeder always talks to her cis-gender son about how to recognize when someone is and isn’t giving consent. She tells him if he’s not sure, “Assume it’s a no, do nothing, and talk about it.”
By training her son to learn these types of non-verbal cues, she is teaching him to reinforce others’ trust in themselves when they don’t want physical contact.
Dr. Schroeder also encourages parents to tell children of all genders to learn the phrase “no but,” so they can learn how to negotiate what they do and do not want. This teaches children that they have agency over their bodies.
For example, Schroeder offers up the phrase “No, I’m uncomfortable making out but I’d love to hold hands with you.” This can set up children to learn how to be comfortable expressing what they do and do not want done to their body, which they can use throughout their entire lives.
6. Make peace with your own discomfort.
Both Dr. Schroeder and Lang brought up the #MeToo Movement, citing it as a symptom of our society’s unease with confronting topics around consent.
“We’re a generation of adults who have been deeply impacted by not having awareness and understanding of our bodies and of consent,” Pintor Carnagey says.
To that end, parents need to push past any discomfort they may have about consent in order to teach it effectively, Lang says.
“This is really about treating people with dignity and respect,” Dr. Schroeder says.