Accepting people's differences and showing empathy are values we try to teach our kids from an early age. It is essential in today's day and age to build upon that emotional intelligence as they enter adolescence, by beginning to speak to them about sexual assault, what constitutes consent and understanding boundaries. We need to draw from the same lessons we taught them at a young age about bullying, like having mutual respect for others, and apply it to this topic for tweens, teens and young adults of all genders.
Adolescence is a tough time full of social awkwardness, experimentation and the need for acceptance. It can be confusing and uncomfortable. It starts with learning to create boundaries for themselves and respecting the boundaries of others. Teaching young people that someone's behavior or appearance does not demonstrate intent is so important. Having them be mindful of someone’s body language, the tone of their voice or their facial expression will help them realize that the clothes a person is wearing or how much they are drinking is not considered consent.
At the same time, a young person should have an understanding of their own personal boundaries. They need to understand how to identify unhealthy situations and feel empowered to exit if they feel uncomfortable without explanation or apology. Young people should also feel safe in confiding in parents, bosses or school officials if something has happened to them without fear of judgment. Most importantly, they need to let go of guilt and understand it is never their fault, regardless of what they wore, how they spoke, etc.
Facilitating these conversations can sometimes be challenging for parents and even educators, but are very necessary. The cornerstone of understanding consent is that it needs to be a direct response and not something that is implying or subject to interpretation. Simply stated, only a spoken "yes" means "yes" and the word "no" doesn't require an explanation. However, where do you begin? Talking about things like what someone was wearing, where someone was going or what they were doing are good places to start.
Trying to figure out how to navigate these difficult conversations with my own daughter was the catalyst for my book, "The ABC's of Non-Consent", recently published and available on Amazon. I am an artist (which was instrumental in designing this book), but I am also the mother of two and have written it as a parent, my most important job of all. When my daughter was about to start college, I began therapeutically jotting down my thoughts and fears and somehow, unplanned, my scribblings and doodles evolved into an educational book on consent. Through poetry and illustration, I outline examples and scenarios that a young person can find themselves in, such as accepting a ride home, going on a date or dancing at a party. My hope is that this book can help other parents speak to their kids about this important subject.
The basic morals and values of character that our kids learned when they were young have to be expanded upon to explain to them what is, and what is not consent. It comes down to respect; respect for other people and respect for yourself. No one should ever make someone else feel fearful, forced or threatened. We should never stop learning how to be more respectful to others. Start the dialogue today and keep it going. Let the young people in your life know that you are there to help guide them without judgment.