As a parent, you’ve probably heard discussions about ‘consent’, but you may not know what it entails or how to introduce the topic to your child.
Although we often think of consent in terms of intimate sexual relationships, consent can apply to other situations as well and is an important concept for children to learn about from an early age. Understanding consent can lead to better relationships with family, friends, peers and eventually, romantic partners.
In simple terms, consent is permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something involving your body. Even common everyday situations such as getting a haircut, visiting the doctor or allowing a coach to place their hands on your body to demonstrate technique, require consent. Respect and honest communication underpin the consent conversation.
In this podcast, Let’s Talk About Consent, we investigate how to introduce consent concepts with younger children.
Author of Welcome to Consent and practising physician Dr Melissa Kang says the conversation begins with giving children an understanding of their personal space and boundaries, as well as helping them to understand and identify the boundaries of others.
Consent education is also about helping children to recognise when a situation doesn’t feel comfortable. It also helps young people to understand that their bodies are their own and they have the right to make decisions about their body.
This might include situations like letting your child decide if they would like to hug or kiss a family member rather than forcing the interaction, or for older children, not entering their bedroom without knocking first.
Parent Rebecca shares how she weaves consent teaching into everyday situations like playdates. We also hear from Life Ed Talk About It program senior educator Lane Norman, who is part of an expert team of educators who cover topics including puberty, sexual health, consent and respectful relationships.
So don’t put the consent talk in the too-hard basket any longer. Consent is an important conversation to have with young people, and when it’s all unpacked, it’s not as complicated as you might think.
I have a daughter who’s nearly eight and a son who’s turning 5 this year. Parenting today is more complex.
I really think in many ways than it used to be. My mother and I or my father and I we didn’t really have conversations about consent.
When I was growing up, it wasn’t something that most parents talked about, really.
I think that well, with me anyway, consent can be a bit of a confusing topic. There’s probably a lot of fear about it. What to discuss when to discuss it am I saying it right? How do I find my way to talk about it or our way with my husband and I, to talk about consent with our primary aged kids?
You know, we’re hearing a lot about consent at schools and in the media at the moment, and it’s not just about sex. It’s part of daily life, really, and I truly believe that there are ways to start introducing the concepts that are practical and age appropriate for our kids.
Consent. The topic seems to be everywhere right now. It’s a concept everyone needs to understand. It applies to situations that occur every day to everyone. Consent education is now mandatory in Australian schools, but consent is not just about sex.
It’s an agreement to do something involving your body, whether that’s getting a haircut, allowing someone to hug you or letting the doctor perform a procedure like checking your body for moles, for example. It’s simple and yet it’s complex.
How do you begin to talk about consent with your kids, and especially, how do you introduce the topic to younger children? In Rebecca’s case, she tries to keep it age appropriate.
Some parents think that consent has to be about sex, really. And so obviously that’s important for older kids. But for me, as a parent with young children consent can start by making sure they’re aware and giving them a sense of understanding their right.
So recognising their body, space and listening to cues about what feels comfortable and right and what doesn’t. And I guess giving them the confidence to use their voice and to know that it’s OK to use their voice, they’re not being rude to someone who’s older, but to understand that they do have the power to make decisions when it comes to their own body and their own space.
I’m Tracy Challenor and this is the Life Ed podcast where we help parents, carers and teachers sort through some of the issues most of us face when raising and educating children.
In this series, we aim to make things just that little bit easier by seeking expert advice on how to tackle the common challenges.
When it comes to the consent issue, you might think it’s a conversation that can wait until kids are in high school, but the truth is, age-appropriate conversations about consent can be taught from kindergarten and even before that, and build up to talk about intimate and romantic relationships as students grow up.
To find out more I spoke to Dr Melissa Kang. Melissa is the author of the book, Welcome to Consent co-written with Yumi Stynes, and she’s also a practising physician who specialises in adolescent health and sexuality.
Dr Melissa Kang
So even young children should be given information about their bodies, about what’s going to potentially happen to their bodies. And just in day-to-day interactions with adults and older people and also other children that they have the right to say what they do and don’t like or what they do and don’t want. When it comes to other people, I guess impinging on their, on their private space or their personal space and who’s allowed to touch their bodies. That’s the general concept behind consent.
So, for the average person without a law degree, how do we define consent?
Dr Melissa Kang
There are some really important golden rules, and they’re, not that complicated. If we really think about them. First of all, consent is a dynamic process. It’s not just a definition in a dictionary. It’s not even just a piece of legislation. It’s something that is ongoing in, including in the moment, so it can be given, it can be changed, it can be withdrawn it can be given again all within the same situation.
And then enthusiastic consent is one of the other golden rules. And when we say enthusiastic, we don’t necessarily mean have to be jumping up and down as if you’ve just won Lotto and said yes, yes I really want to do that. It’s really it’s got to, it might look like that but enthusiastic consent is really about being certain that this person is committed to this. This is what they want to do, and therefore they’re giving it their full consent. And finally, it has to be voluntary and freely given. And this is where the issues of power and power dynamics come into play. This is also true for younger children, of course. So to give consent and for consent to be legal and to be authentic it has to be freely given there cannot be a power differential between the two parties.
- Well, it sounds like consent goes hand in hand with respectful relationships. If kids understand what respectful relationships look like from a young age, does that help do you think? When they come to navigate more adult and legal aspects of consent down the track?
Dr Melissa Kang
We have to demonstrate how to communicate respectfully, how to treat people with respect. Now that can be in just day to day interactions with other people around us but it’s also a perhaps about using examples outside of the family, perhaps news stories or situations we might hear about, amongst friends or family members where we where we can talk to our children about, you know what, what do you think about? Do you think this was a respectable situation. Do you think this person treated the other person with respect. This is what children are taught in school, of course, when it comes to respectful relationships, teachers are very skilled; I think at teaching respectful communication, respectful relationships and parents can really back that up.
How do we help kids understand the difference between needing to follow directions and rules from someone in authority and knowing when it’s OK to say that what they’re being asked to do has crossed a particular boundary.
Dr Melissa Kang
Well, this is where I think emotional awareness is critical because you can’t write a rulebook and say everything follows the same rules or the same protocol. It’s going to be different depending on the context depending on the situation and in the book we write about having that gut instinct and trusting that gut instinct. So if you feel something is not right, finding the way to describe what that feeling is and then being able to talk to someone you trust about that, about that feeling. So the best place to learn that is as soon as children start to be able to communicate, really through talking, what it is that they’re feeling.
Once they get into adolescence and they might be having their, you know, first part time job. I think we need to be just hovering around the edges wanting our children to learn the confidence to be autonomous workers and to learn to speak up at work with their bosses. But we’re also aware that there’s a big power difference there and we want our children to be able to sense for what’s appropriate and what are the some things, what are some of the things they shouldn’t have to putting up with such as you know, a bully or a very intimidating boss, or you know as and also things that you know that are completely unacceptable and illegal, like sexual harassment or being asked to share inappropriate things about themselves.
Following an historic decision by Australia’s Education ministers’, schools are now expected to teach consent education from Prep to Year 10. That includes topics such as coercion, gendered stereotypes and power imbalances. Life Ed Queensland offers the largest sexual health and relationships education programme in Queensland primary schools. It’s called ‘Talk About It’ and it destigmatizes tricky conversations around topics like puberty, sexual health, consent, protective behaviours and respectful relationships. Lane Norman is one of the senior educators with the Talk About It team. She says it’s a game changer for many schools, and she enjoys tackling what can be an intimidating topic.
The Talk About It programme which is exclusive to life education. I’ve been with them for seven years and prior to that I was teaching a similar programme in NSW for another nine years, so I’ve been teaching this stuff for a really long time. And teachers in both NSW and Queensland have always loved having us come in and take the teaching of puberty and reproduction and consent away from them because it’s it’s tricky. It’s tricky when they’ve got one type of relationship with a group of kids and also as parents most of them aren’t particularly comfortable having that conversation with their own kids let alone 27 kids falling to other people so they love that someone comes in and makes it fun and makes it factual and they get to just, you know, answer questions after we’ve after we’ve been in.
As an educator, how do you start the consent conversation with kids?
I will say that this is you know, this is really important that, that you understand your body rights and that you understand what consent is. And so we link it to how they identify within their body, what an unsafe situation is, or what unsafe feeling scared and unsafe is. And we then link that to the rest of the private parts that no one has a right to look at, touch or talk about.
We unpack the different situations and the different messages that the kids have been given right back from being really, really small children. I will share my childhood, as somebody that was born in the 70s, where we were made to hug and kiss all of the adults at the dinner party when we were sent to bed and we had no bodily autonomy. And the kids, they really are surprised by that and they’re like ‘What really? I don’t actually have to do that?’ So it’s huge and when I’m talking to parents it’s really important that they start to bring this into their practise at home, that they’re not asking their kids to do something that that they’re uncomfortable with and that they’re checking in and really empowering their kids around their body, because then you start that with a very small person when they are in a relationships, when they’re in their mid to late teens they have got the language to say no, I just don’t feel it right now, and this is not something I’m comfortable doing.
So, consent for younger people is about starting an important conversation. It’s about knowing your body is yours and respecting other people’s space and your own. For Rebecca, the parent of two primary school children we heard from earlier, even play dates are a chance to teach some basic consent principles.
We’ve chatted to our daughter about how we want to create a fun atmosphere for her and her friends, and especially when her friends come over for a swim in the pool that we provide her friends with their own space. So, once they jump out of the pool, their own space to shower and change, if that’s what they feel most comfortable with.
Kids aren’t always aware of the needs of others, so that just that bringing awareness to making a decision involving your body I think is really important. So even with events like being invited to a birthday party, it can be exciting for them to receive an invite and that social gathering and those inclusions. However, I’ve gotta remember that even though I like to attend social gatherings, my child might not want to attend, and it could be for a range of reasons. But just to give them that power of making a decision. Especially leading into high school social interactions and that element of peer pressure to attend gatherings, I like to think of this as bringing awareness to my child that they have a voice and hopefully a confident social voice in social situations.
Ultimately, having a voice and knowing how to use it is a big step in preventing situations where boundaries are crossed and someone gets hurt. Here’s ‘Talk About It’ educator Lane, on how she teaches children to tune in to what feels safe.
Getting them to really connect with their body signals, so their unsafe body sensations, also called somatic responses. So, it’s when your body reacts to your internal emotional state. But if they have that all the time and they have awareness of that in every relationship, not only does it help with them not being groomed or not being abused in any way as a child, but it’s also going to help with them when they’re in adult relationships, that the number, so that when we go into high schools, the number of young people who will find themselves not knowing how to say no to something. Even if it’s just like, oh, well, I agreed to hold your hand, but I didn’t actually agree to kiss you. Or I agreed to go to this party with you, but I didn’t agree to us being the only people there and me not having a way to get home. So, it kind of lends itself just to safety in every relationship, whether they’re children or whether they’re even adults.
So, when it’s all unpacked maybe consent is not such a complicated topic after all. Parent Rebecca hopes the chats she’s having now will lay the foundation for positive relationships when her kids are older.
A respectful relationship in the playground looks fun and inviting and and happy. And I guess in the real world adult interaction, a respectful relationship can look the same as well. So, if we start discussing that idea of personal space or you know, can I hug you or? Or those, elements that’s really a preface for some adult interaction that can start in the pre-primary years.
As for the educators on the front line of teaching consent, knowledge and awareness equals power. I asked Lane what is the one consent message she’d like children to take away from the Talk About It programme.
With young kids, it is the most important is that your body, and it doesn’t matter who is asking. No relationship trumps your bodily autonomy in Year Four will use a book by Janine Sanders, ‘My Body, What I Say Goes,’ and I thoroughly recommend that for parents. And I have a catch phrase similar to that, so when I’m giving this message of consent, I will say, ‘Your body, your rules, no one gets to tell you what to do with it.’ So listen to your body, listen to your gut response and keep yourself safe.
You’ve been listening to the Life Ed podcast. Thanks to my guests Rebecca, Doctor Melissa Kane, and Life Ed Talk About It Senior Educator Lane Norman for sharing their wisdom on the topic of consent. And if you’d like to know more about our guests or want to find more resources head to our website lifeeducationqld.org.AU/podcasts.
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I’m Tracy Challenor. Thanks for joining me for the Life Ed podcast.