In a perfect world, “no” would always mean no and “yes” would clearly mean yes. Children wouldn’t hear their parents discussing news stories about sexual abuse, and parents wouldn’t have to worry that their children might one day experience or be accused of sexual abuse.
Until this perfection is achieved, understanding and respecting the rules of consent is essential.
What is consent?
Consent is permission for something to happen, or an agreement to do something. Whether in relation to sexual activity or any activity shared by two or more people, consent requires communication, understanding, respect and compassion.
When it comes to sexual consent, both partners agree to the activity and are fully able to understand every aspect of the activity. Consent must be given every time for each sexual activity, from holding hands to intercourse.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in today’s hypersexualized culture, the traditional birds and bees conversation between a parent and child is inadequate.
“Parents and guardians have a responsibility to help prepare children for changes in their bodies, appropriate romantic and sexual relationships, and peer pressure, as well as the media glorification of irresponsible sexuality and the potential for sexual abuse,” says Dr. Matthew Messoline, a board-certified family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group.
Some parents may balk at bringing up the subject of consent with their children. It can be an awkward or embarrassing topic to discuss, and parents may feel they have raised their children to respect others and would never attempt sexual activity with someone who has not given explicit permission. However, consent — along with honesty, respect and communication — is the foundation of all healthy relationships.
Dr. Messoline says that boys and girls should understand that consent:
- Is voluntary and verbally given
- Always includes an affirmative, enthusiastic and not coerced “yes”
- Means understanding that “no” always means no, whether given verbally or nonverbally
- Allows each person to be given the chance to say “no” or change their minds at any time
- Means no activity occurs until permission is clearly given
- Is safe and comfortable for both parties
- Is ongoing and must be given for any new activity
- Cannot be assumed or implied by behavior, digital communication (such as texts or social media posts) or environment
- Never includes physical resistance
- Can never be given by people who are intoxicated, asleep, unconscious or otherwise unaware of what is happening
Conversations about consent
Parents don’t need to have long, drawn-out conversations about consent with their children. Brief conversations in the car or at mealtimes can be very effective, and talking about consent works best when discussed regularly and in different ways.
Talking about the types of questions sexual partners should ask each other can make young people feel more comfortable in the moment. These questions include:
- Is this OK?
- Do you want to continue?
- Do you want to stop?
- Do you like this?
- Are we moving too fast?
- Are you OK with me doing this or touching you there?
- Are you enjoying yourself?
When to start talking with kids about consent
Conversations about consent should begin when children are young — as young as the toddler years. You can allow young children to make decisions about whether they’d like to be tickled or if they want to hug a relative. This helps them to build confidence in knowing and communicating their own limits and teaches them that they — and others — deserve to be heard and treated with respect.
Learn more about common topics introduced in sexuality education and how to discuss these issues with adolescents by talking with your doctor or visiting healthychildren.org.