By Megan Osborne, HCWC Prevention Educator
In the wake of the #metoo movement, many parents, teachers and caregivers want to know what we should be teaching young people. As an educator and mother, I get questions like “what age should these conversations start?” and, more often, “what should these discussions look like?” Teaching consent and boundaries is simpler than we think. However, it needs to begin as young as possible and be ongoing throughout a person’s life.
At a very early age parents begin pointing and teaching children the names of their body parts: ears, eyes, nose, foot, etc. However, we skip private parts, give them nicknames, or whisper them like a secret. Teaching children the anatomically correct names of their private parts is essential. The penis and vagina are just as important to know as hands and toes.
We should be able to discuss all body parts with children. These body parts should not be secret or shameful. Young people need to be given the appropriate vocabulary to understand and advocate for their own bodies.
It is important for children to understand that their body belongs to them. Children should be able to make decisions about who they touch and who touches them. If a child is not comfortable giving hugs, do not force them. Physical affection should be given freely and never forced. Children need to understand that physical affection is about what they are comfortable with and not about pleasing other people. Additionally, as much as young people need to learn to advocate for themselves and say no, they also must learn to respect other people’s space and boundaries and respectfully accept a no.
Teaching consent to children doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply put, consent is about asking and giving permission. Learning to ask and get consent can be practiced in everyday situations. This can be practiced by teaching young people to ask, listen and respectfully accept the answers of others. These skills can be developed through practice and reinforcement.
Teach young people empathy and to be aware of the feelings of others. Explain to them if they have done something to hurt someone else. Encourage them to imagine what it would feel like if it were them. Remember to be kind when teaching young people and never embarrass or shame them – they are learning.
Likewise, teach children about helping other children and alerting trusted adults so appropriate help can be provided. Remind children that adults may sometimes need help from other adults, but shouldn’t need help from children.
Moreover, talk to the young people in your life about gut feelings. Let them know that sometimes we might get a strange feeling when our instincts tell us something is not right. Teach them to listen to their instincts because those gut feelings are there to keep us safe. Reassure them if they ever have those feelings about a person or place and that they can share those feelings with you.
Practice around consent and boundaries should be ongoing throughout a young person’s life. Conversations around consent and sexual behaviors should progress as the child enters middle school and high school. Discuss informed enthusiastic consent with your teens. Remember the mantra for consent is not “no means no” but “yes means yes.” Media and movies can be great conversation starters to discuss unhealthy relationship behaviors, the role of alcohol and sex, and bystander roles. They also provide opportunities to bust myths about gender expectations, such as the hard to get girl, or the dominant, aggressive male protagonist.
All things considered, start these practices early. And, if you haven’t yet, start them now. These concepts will carry over and prepare young people for more serious conversations and situations into their teenage years and adulthood. Young people will be bombarded with messages about societal norms, gender expectations, violence and sex throughout their lives, starting at birth. Be the trusted and responsible adult in their life that prepares them for healthy relationships.
The following article is the first article of a five-week series focusing on raising awareness about sexual assault and child abuse. April is both Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Awareness month.