As I said before, the right to consent is a fundamental human right. Once you understand what consent really means, applying it to daily life gets easier.
A Reminder: Elements of Consent
As you know, consent requires 4 elements:
Capacity to make the decision.
Understanding what is included in the consent
Ability to voluntarily grant consent, without coercion or duress
Ability to communicate consent
A lot of parents don't think about teaching their young children consent. Teenagers perhaps, as sexual consent is an incredibly important concept. But certainly not little kids. And I think that's incredibly short-sighted. Because consent is essential to establishing autonomy and agency, we should be having these conversations from a very young age. And yet we don't. Why not?
Well, it's a little abstract for sure. And it's awkward sometimes. But probably a lot of the avoidance of teaching consent is that we don't respect our children's right to consent/assent very often. In fact, much of parenting is built on the perception that parents have the right to make unilateral decisions for their children. So if we teach consent explicitly, we're opening ourselves up to more resistance from our children. And that's bad, right?
As If By Magic
I can't count the number of times I've heard how much harder it is to parent now than it was 20 years ago, or 50 years ago, or whatever. And that's true. Life is more complicated now than it ever was. Relationships are more intricate, mostly because we just have more of them. And there are more different kinds of relationships. Social media and gaming have stretched the social fabric in new and interesting ways.
Yet we're still trying to parent in the same way our parents did. We make the rules and the kids follow them. Deviations need to be corrected. Rules aren't up for discussion. And still, we expect our kids to navigate an ever-changing world with skills that they will never develop if we don't teach those skills. We expect them to magically develop tools to manage relationships with no experience.
Giving Consent is a Skill
Consent is really a process of giving someone permission to cross our boundaries. Whether physical or emotional, we can and should establish boundaries that protect us from others. Teaching children to set good boundaries is about staying safe.
But we can also choose to let some people in a little closer. We give them permission to be close to us. That's consent. To give that kind of consent, we need to teach our children to understand their own boundaries and when it's safe to give others access to us. That's not something we develop overnight. There's definitely trial and error involved. Kids need practice at this, and we as parents need to get comfortable with having these conversations.
Refusing Consent is a Skill
Letting people in is a skill. But so is keeping them out. Our children need to get incredibly comfortable establishing and maintaining boundaries with others. It's not appropriate or safe to allow others to touch us without our consent. It's also not acceptable for others to control our behavior, choices, and lives without our consent.
In order to get comfortable saying no, we have to let our kids say no. And we need to teach them that their "no" means something. I know this is uncomfortable ground for a lot of parents. But if our kids have never had their boundaries set and respected, they don't know that they have a right to expect respect from others.
Accepting Lack of Consent is a Skill
On the other side, our kids also need to understand that others' behavior and choices are not within their control. This one is hard for a lot of kids. Because when they're anxious, kids try to control whatever they can. Sometimes it's just wanting the green cup, not the orange one. But other times, kids try to control the behavior of their siblings and parents. And that's unsafe, particularly when it's about physical touch.
I can't tell you the number of kids who touch me without permission. And generally, it's not a big deal. But I often wonder if these kids know that it's actually not okay to touch people without asking first. And they probably don't. Because it's possible that their parents haven't taught them, and highly likely that consent has never been modeled and enforced for them.
All of this is very abstract. But next, we'll put this into some real-world examples, so you can see how to operationalize this as a parent.