Raising children these days is tricky. As parents we want to protect them from harm and support them in achieving their hopes and dreams. We know that even before puberty starts they are thinking about how their bodies compare to others in their peer group, if they have to give hugs and kisses to friends and relatives, or how to say yes or no to a cuddle or high five.
What is our role as parents in helping them learn how to navigate personal safety, relationship safety and their own boundaries? As they get older, how do we help our kids navigate dating relationships, physical touch like hugging or kissing and, eventually, sexual relationships?
As parents we can look at how we create a culture of consent with our children. Teaching our children of any age that it is not OK to touch someone who does not want to be touched is a good start.
From physical touch (“How would it feel if I gave you a back rub?”) to other choices (“What would you like on your pizza?”), practicing consent acknowledges their decision-making power. It’s important that they see their parents or other trusted adults communicating about consent in their own lives to set an example.
With older kids, it invariably gets more complicated. Teenagers are experiencing emotions around relationships that can range from fun to ambiguous, from exciting to uncomfortable. The resulting confusion can lead them to seek out information online or from a peer. How can we shift this so that they are hearing more from trusted adults?
If there is a lesson from this past year of #MeToo and powerful people coming forward with stories about encounters gone horribly wrong, it is that people can have very different perceptions of the same experiences, awareness of consent is lacking and, as a result, adults are experiencing unwanted and unsafe encounters. In our culture where gender norms are strong and sexual violence affects one in three women, it is likely that many students are seeing things that perpetuate unhealthy relationships in the media and in real life.
So how can we do better at home and at school? It would help for parents to acknowledge the complexity of relationships and dating with their teens by sharing lessons they’ve learned. Parents can also use this #MeToo moment as a jumping off point to talk about current events and the issues surrounding consent and relationships.
Sex education that teaches about healthy relationships, consent and disease and pregnancy prevention is critical. Role plays that allow students to practice talking about consent with a peer or partner can be very effective teaching tools. Role plays that include students who identify as gay or lesbian are important, as they often lack examples of adults having these conversations.
We also must stress that the burden to prevent sexual violence and assault should not be placed solely on girls. When teens understand consent and how to negotiate their relationships appropriately we can change the conversation.
These are a few ways we can grant young people the skills, information and decision-making power they need to protect their bodies and be safe in their relationships.
The “Just Say No” approach to sex education that is part of HB286 Reproductive Education Amendments, passed last week by the Utah Legislature, won’t work. We can help educate our students on the laws and policies of our state while also providing them opportunities to talk about real lives, real emotions and real decisions in order to learn.
Let’s give teens the agency to say yes and say no so that they can have the healthiest relationships possible at every age.
Kristin Hodson, Sandy, is a licensed clinical social worker and certified sex therapist, founder and executive director of The Healing Group in Salt Lake City and, co-author of “Real Intimacy: A Couples Guide for Genuine, Healthy Sexuality.” In addition to her professional work, she is the mother to three amazing kids.