Talking to our children about sex can sometimes be a challenging task. We live in a world where everything around us is soaked in sexuality- it is used to market everything from household goods to automobiles, toys, and even the food we consume. While we try our best to censor everything our kids are exposed to, we cannot always be sure of what they engage in when we are not with them.
We believe parents can start educating children about consent as early as 1 year old and continue into the tertiary school years. We sincerely hope that this education can help us raise empowered young adults who have empathy for others and a clear understanding of healthy consent.
We hope parents and educators find the recommendations in this article helpful.
We have divided our recommendations into three based on the children’s ages.
For Very Young Children (ages 1-5)
1. Teach children to always ask permission before touching or embracing a playmate. Use language such as, “Jenny, let’s ask Paul if he would like to hug welcome.”
If Paul does not grant the request, cheerfully tell your child, “That’s okay, Jenny! Let’s greet Paul with a warm smile.”
2. Help create empathy within your child by explaining how something they have done may have hurt someone.
3. Teach children that “NO” and “STOP” are important words and should be honored. One way to explain this may be, “Hannah said ‘no’, and when we hear ‘no’ we always stop what we’re doing immediately. No matter what.”
Also, emphasize to your child that his or her “no’s” are also to be honored. If they find anyone or their friends not honoring their ‘No’, it’s okay to talk to a trusted adult about it and even choose other friends.
4. Teach children to help others who may be in trouble. Talk to kids about helping other children, and alerting trusted grown-ups when others need help.
5. Encourage children to read facial expressions and other body language: Scared, happy, sad, frustrated, angry, and more. Charade-style guessing games with expressions are a great way to teach children how to read body language.
6. Never force a child to hug, touch or kiss anybody, for any reason. If Grandma or an Uncle is demanding a kiss, and your child is resistant, offer alternatives by saying something like, “Would you rather give Grandma or uncle a high-five or blow them a kiss, maybe?”
You can always explain to the person involved, later, what you’re doing and why. But don’t make a big deal out of it in front of your kid. If it’s a problem for Grandma, so be it, your job now is to do what’s best for your child and give them the tools to be safe and happy, and help others do the same.
7. Encourage children to wash their own genitals during bath time. Of course, parents have to help sometimes, but explaining to your little one that their penis or vagina is important and that they need to take care of it is a great way to help encourage body pride and a sense of ownership of his or her own body.
Also, model consent by asking for permission to help wash your child’s body. Keep it upbeat and always honor the child’s request to not be touched.
8. Give children the opportunity to say yes or no in everyday choices, too. Let them choose their clothes and have a say in what they wear, what they play, or how they do their hair. Obviously, there are times when you have to step in, but help them understand that you heard his or her voice and that it mattered to you, and that you want to keep them safe and healthy.
9. Allow children to talk about their bodies in any way they want, without shame. Teach them the correct words for their genitals, and make yourself a safe place for talking about bodies and sex.
Guidelines For Older Children (Ages 5-12)
1. Teach kids that the way their bodies are changing is great, but can sometimes be confusing. The way you talk about these body changes — whether it’s loose teeth or acne and pubic hair — will show your willingness to talk about other sensitive subjects.
Be scientific, and direct, and answer any questions your child may have, without shame or embarrassment. Again, if your first instinct is to silence them because you are embarrassed, practice until you can act like it’s no big deal with your kid
2. Encourage them to talk about what feels good and what doesn’t.
3. Remind your child that everything they’re going through is natural, growing up happens to all of us.
4. Children should be taught how to use safe words while playing, and you should assist them in deciding on a safe word to use with their peers.
This is necessary because many kids like to disappear deep into their pretend worlds together, such as playing war games where someone gets captured or putting on a stage play where characters may be arguing.
At this age, saying “no” may be part of the play, so they need to have one word that will stop all activity.
5. Help kids interpret what they see on the playground and with friends. Ask what they could do or could have done differently to help. Play a “rewind” game, if they come home and tell you about seeing bullying.
6. Don’t tease kids for their boy-girl friendships, or for having crushes. Whatever they feel is okay. If their friendship with someone else seems like a crush, don’t mention it. You can ask them open questions like, “How is your friendship with Daniela going?” and be prepared to talk — or not talk — about it.
Guidelines for Teens and Young Adults
1. Educate your teen on “good touch/bad touch”. The teenage age is where various “touch games” emerge: butt-slapping, boys hitting one another in the genitals, and pinching each other’s nipples to cause pain. When kids talk about these games, a trend emerges where boys explain that they think the girls like it, but the girls explain that they do not.
We must get kids talking about the ways in which these games impact other people. They will try to write it off, but it’s important to encourage them to talk it through and ask them how they would feel if someone hit them in that way, or did something that made them feel uncomfortable or violated.
When you see it happen, nip it in the bud. This isn’t “boys being boys”, this is harassment, and sometimes assault.
2. Boost their self-confidence. Around age 13, bullying starts to directly target identity in middle school, and self-esteem begins to decline. By the age of 17, 78 percent of girls report hating their bodies according to research.
We tend to build up our younger kids by telling them how great they are. For some reason, we stop doing that when they reach middle school. But this stage is actually a very crucial time to even build up their self-esteem, more than ever. Compliment and affirm them regularly about their talents, skills, their kindness, as well as their appearance.
3. Continue having “sex talks” with your teen but start incorporating information about consent. We’re often good at talking about waiting until marriage to have sex, about sexually-transmitted infections, or practicing safer sex. But we don’t usually talk about consent. It’s time to take a deep dive into that topic!
Educating our teenagers about consent means we don’t have to re-educate them later and break bad habits, perhaps after somebody’s been hurt.
4. Mentor teenage and college-aged boys and young men about what masculinity is. Men need to talk to boys about what’s good about masculinity. Ask what hasn’t been so good about our culture of masculinity in the past. These conversations can encourage a non-violent form of masculinity for the future.
Boys need to start talking about building healthy masculinity starting in middle school and continuing through college because transforming masculinity is vital to transforming rape culture.
5. Discuss with your child about partying. Make it clear that you don’t want them drinking or using drugs; but that you know kids party and you want your kids to be informed. Ask them questions about how they are going to keep themselves and others safe when they go to a party with their peers.
6. Nip “locker room talk” in the bud. Sex conversation starts in middle school in places like locker rooms and sleepovers that are only for one gender. Their crushes and desire are normal and healthy. They have healthy and reasonable crushes and desires. However, as educators and parents, we need to do more than just stop kids from talking about other kids like they’re objects. We also need to model how to talk about our crushes as whole people.
7. Keep talking about sex and consent with teens as they start having serious relationships. Yeah, they’ll tell you they know it all, but continuing the conversation about healthy consent, respecting our partners and healthy sexuality shows them how important these themes are to you. It also normalizes talking about consent, so talking openly and respectfully with partners becomes second nature to teens.
8. Teenagers are thirsty for more information about sexual assault, consent, and healthy sexuality. They want to learn, and they will find a way to get information about sex. If you are the one providing that information — lovingly, honestly, and consistently — they will carry that information out into the world with them.