The best sex-ed you can give your child: Consent
Experts recommend introducing the concept of consent to children as young as two. Here's why.
One of the best gifts you can give your child is to start with their sex education at an early age and to teach them about consent and personal boundaries. Consent is less about sex and more about respect. Experts believe that children learn about consent based on what they see and what they believe is acceptable or normal in the world around them. This is a two-way process. The more you affirm their right to uphold their personal boundaries, the more they learn to respect other person's boundaries.
Most parents understand that it's important to talk about sex to your child so that she/he gets the right information from you rather than picking unrealistic or wrong notions from their peers or the media. You cannot rely on anyone or anything else to teach them about consent. Telling them sexual assault is wrong is not enough. If it were, there wouldn't be sexual assault happening every two minutes in the US and nearly every other country around the globe.
Here's how you can bring up a child who is aware of his/her right to say no and how they can treat everyone else with the same kind of respect.
1. Never force affection
It starts with you. As much as you would love to smother your kid with the tightest of hugs and give them a big kiss, there might be times your child is just not in the mood for it. Pick the cue and let the child be until she/he feels more receptive to physical affection. This tells them that they have the right to hold their boundaries and it doesn't necessarily mean they are saying no to love. There's always time for cuddles and hugs when they are as enthusiastic as you.
If your child is still very young, encourage him/her to ask for permission before showing physical affection to other kids. "Let's ask Dana if she wants a hug right now."
2. Affirm their right to choose
This overlaps with the previous point. Never force them to receive affection from someone, even if it's a close friend or family member, when they don't want it. Don't make them feel guilty for not giving affection by saying "Be a good boy and give Aunt Jane a kiss." Instead, give them options.
"Looks like you don't want to give Aunt Jane a kiss. Do you want to give her a fist bump or perhaps blow a kiss in the air for her to catch?"
3. Teach them the power of NO
This begins with helping them understand that they have the right to say NO to anything that doesn't feel right or good and anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. When they learn that NO is a powerful word that sets clear boundaries others cannot cross, they learn to take others' boundaries seriously and know beyond doubt that NO means NO.
Also let them know that if someone doesn't honor their NO, that it's okay to not want to spend time with that person anymore.
"Looks like you don't want to play with your cousin because he kept pushing and teasing you around. It's okay if you want to stop being around him. But do you still want to play ball with the other kids?"
Tell them their body is theirs alone and that if they are not okay with something they have the right to state it. If your young child is beginning to feel funny or act awkward when you bathe him, ask him "Do you want to wash your bottom yourself? Here's the soap, go ahead. Mommy will help you with your feet."
4. Encourage them to listen to their intuition
Talk to your child about the "feeling" that they might get when something seems off. Explain it to them that even if they don't have a reason or explanation for not wanting to be with or around someone, or not wanting to visit a place or do something, then it's important to listen to that feeling.
You can encourage this by honoring their intuition in other aspects of life. If they say, "I don't know, I just don't feel like going on that trip right now," allow them to get familiar with not knowing and being okay with it, until they get a clearer understanding of what's stopping them. When your kid is old enough to understand, explain that the human body is as capable of sensing danger like the brain is. So sensing danger or a threat is not always through the head.
4. Get specific about sex and consent
As your child grows up, you can get specific about consent and sexuality. Explain to them that consent involves asking for permission and waiting to hear a YES. If someone says NO or STOP, they have to immediately stop, even if it involves talking sexually or just holding hands. Kids might say "Of course, I know this!" or roll their eyes, but the more you talk about it, you normalize the idea of consent and make it clear that all of these topics are open for discussion, if they are in doubt.
5. Teach them that once a YES is not always a YES
Explain to them that as human beings we feel different at different times. There might be times they feel like engaging in sexual activities, but there will be times they don't feel like it. No one can pressurize them just because they enjoyed it before. The same holds for others. If they have begun dating, explain to them that their partner might like to hold hands at times, but not so much at other times. Being so specific will make them feel awkward but by doing this you are opening up an important channel of communication.
6. Talk about consent during a date/in a relationship
This is an important conversation to have with older kids or even grown-up kids if you missed the talk before. You don't have to make it serious as they might think you are being too observant of their new relationship or they may take it as a personal feedback against them.
Instead, you can initiate a general dialogue about how within an intimate relationship, partners get really comfortable with each other. But there might still be times that one of them doesn't feel like being affectionate or interested to engage in sex.
Acknowledging that the line between teasing and initiating sex and the line between resisting playfully and saying NO are sometimes thin can give them so much clarity and permission to ponder of the topic thoughtfully. Help them understand that whenever they are not sure if their partner wants it as much as they do, they should stop immediately. It is always good to ask verbally "Are you sure you are up for this?" or give the other person time to know how they feel about it. "It's okay if you don't feel like it now, we have all the time."
7. Discuss what the media exposes them to
Whether you like it or not, your child will be bombarded with visual stimuli, information, unrealistic ideas, and bizarre beliefs from the media, the Internet, and their peers. The best way to weed out unhealthy ideas is to invite them to casual discussions about what they see as they see it. If you come across a scene where the man continues to kiss a woman who clearly doesn't seem to enjoy it or is trying to make a conversation when he is busy working his hands on her, ask your child, "Do you think that's what a man should do?" Every time the world misguides them and normalizes crossing boundaries, reinforce what you have taught about NOs.
8. Teach them to be sensitive to nonverbal cues
A normal response to sudden assault or unexpected breach of boundaries is to freeze. Teach your kids to rely on nonverbal cues that scream NO even if the person doesn't say NO. This helps them navigate through the tricky terrains of a new relationship where both partners are fond of each other but one of them needs to take it slow or take time before they get physical. Also, explain to them that there are levels of intimacy and that some people prefer to sail slowly through each stage and that they should learn to respect this wish, whether it's their own or their partner's.
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