Practicing What I Preach: Consent, Young People, and Respecting a No

By Dr. Sara C. Flowers, Vice President of Education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America

As a sex educator, I often view everyday situations as teachable moments. My original idea for this blog was a story about my adventures in parenting a second grader, as an example of how we can teach and practice consent and bodily autonomy.

Unfortunately, as anyone who lives or works with kids understands, young people have a unique way of turning even the most well-intended opportunities into a roller coaster ride.

As I was developing this guest blog, I approached my daughter about my idea. Her first name, photo, and a snippet of her personal life were going to be made public, so it was only fair, in the context of an article about consent, to get her approval.

This is where my story takes a turn, as the universe reminded me that parenting is not always about my ideas and my path forward. I asked her permission to tell the story, and gave her the option to choose a picture of us together. She turned me down cold.

I must admit, I was surprised — shocked, even — that a kid who loves Instagram and has dreams of becoming a YouTuber didn’t want her picture in my article. My mind was also reeling — I had promised to deliver a blog post! I had a submission deadline! I tried to gain an understanding of her perspective by asking questions, and she informed me that I had to ask her every time I wanted to tell a story about her life, and she’ll decide, on a case-by-case basis, if that’s a story she wants people to know or not.

I’ll admit, I considered waiting until morning and asking again to see if I could get a different answer. I even thought about publishing it anyway — would she be mad when she googled herself as a teenager? I realized how wrong those paths would have been. Here was a perfect opportunity to practice what I preach.

Part of being a parent is respecting our children’s boundaries and learning how to accept a “no” whenever we can (while making sure they’re healthy and safe) — even when we don’t understand or agree with them. I want my kid to trust me. I want her to feel safe with me. I want her to grow up with the expectation that when she says no, it will be heard and respected by others.

As parents, we balance our desire to teach these lessons, of a “no” being respected, against the need to impart other important life lessons — like the value of bedtimes, eating vegetables, and using manners. It’s important to understand that lessons learned at home about bodily autonomy and consent are building blocks that kids will use as they grow into adulthood. Demonstrating respect for our kids’ personal boundaries, including putting their image online — in a blog or a social media post, for example — is one way to model consent so that our kids will know what it looks like to have their autonomy respected in the future.

Everyday moments like these are important for young people — and their parents — to put the principles of consent in practice. These moments also set the stage for young people to consider the autonomy of other people, and to respect a “no” when they hear one. When these conversations start at an early age, and are modeled by the adults in their lives, children can grow up with the tools they need to have healthy and safe relationships.

This Sexual Assault Awareness Month and beyond, parents can be both an example and a resource on consent for their kids. Remember that consent isn’t just about sex, and for young children, it doesn’t need to be taught in a sexual context. At its core, consent is all about having empathy for others and respect for their boundaries, and about feeling empowered to make the best decisions for yourself — values we want all young people to exercise as they grow up, no matter the situation.

Now that many parents are acting as educators at home due to COVID-19, consider taking some time while social distancing to teach your kids about consent and boundaries in relationships. Planned Parenthood has a website for parents, which provides tips on how to have these conversations with young people of all ages in developmentally appropriate ways.

Keep in mind that these skills and values build over time with regular reinforcement, and the way that you talk with your child will evolve as they get older.

So much about the people we become — including how we come to understand our own power and to respect the autonomy of others — is informed by the skills we learn throughout childhood. No matter where life’s teachable moments surface, as parents, we can equip our children with the building blocks they need to communicate their own — and respect other people’s — boundaries.

Dr. Sara C. Flowers is an advocate for both inclusive sex education and dismantling inequities in sexual and reproductive health. In her role as Vice President of Education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Dr. Flowers sets the vision, priorities, and strategy for sex education and training. She holds a Doctorate in Public Health from The Graduate School and University Center, CUNY, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a Master of Public Health degree, both from The George Washington University. She currently serves on the board of directors for SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change.

Since 2001, NSVRC has coordinated the national Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign observed every April. This year’s theme, “I Ask,” is all about consent. Join the campaign by accessing free resources at nsvrc.org/saam. Resources are available in Spanish at nsvrc.org/es/saam.

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