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Evolving the 'birds and the bees' talk: ASU expert offers parents advice on teaching children and teens about consent

October 31, 2017

The “talk” parents are having with their children about sex is undergoing a sea change. With the dramatic — and sometimes graphic — accounts of unwanted propositions getting increased public attention, the story about “the birds and the bees” is fast evolving into a complex narrative about courtship and consent.

Still, as uncomfortable as these talks can be for parents and children, experts say they can be helpful in getting ahead of the problems that have been populating many headlines of late.

“It is so important to have these conversations about consent and boundaries with our children,” said Marcella Gemelli, a lecturer in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University. “Because we live in a world where sexual assault happens, where bullying happens, we can teach our children very early on what it means to be respectful to others, how to have empathy and how to respond assertively either as the target of abuse, or as an intervener to help stop it from happening.”

Gemelli says there is a lot more parents can do to teach their sons and daughters about consent in our current cultural climate. She shared her thoughts in a recent interview with ASU Now.

Marcella Gemelli

Question: How should parents express what consent means to their children?

Answer: At the heart of consent is the establishment of boundaries regarding the body and being respectful of your child’s comfort level with touch. Parents can role-model consent with their young children during play, for example. If a parent is play wrestling or tickling her child and the child says stop, the parent should stop. This exhibits a respect for a boundary the child sets.

Children get information from adults regarding appropriate ways to interact in their own interpersonal relationships. Parents should also feel comfortable when their child does not want to participate in affection with friends or family members, or to interact physically with an adult like a coach, or a teacher. In fact, if a child exhibits a significant aversion to being touched by a certain adult, this may be cause for alarm. It is always OK to say no.

Q: What is the right age to start having those conversations? How early is too early — and how late is too late?

A: Toddlers can learn about consent and boundaries, and it is never too late to have conversations about consent. In fact, it is important to talk about consent and boundaries throughout our children’s lives and their different developmental stages. Parents should allow their very young children to talk about, touch and explore their own bodies without shame while also encouraging them to respect the boundaries of other children’s bodies.

Significant physical changes of children’s bodies and a greater emphasis on peer-to-peer relationships make conversations with tweens and teenagers incredibly important. Parents should continue to discuss issues of respect, boundaries and empathy among others, and to model healthy interpersonal relationships, with their college-age children as well.

Q: Is there a difference in the way parents should talk about consent with their sons and daughters? If so, how should the subject be discussed with young men and young women?

A: Yes and no. At a very basic level, we need to teach and model to both boys and girls, young men and women, to be respectful of differences. This can be based on gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, age ability and so forth. But we do know statistically that boys and men are more likely to engage in bullying behaviors and sexual assault against females.

Unfortunately, we have societal norms about femininity (passivity) and masculinity (aggression) that create a culture of permission of bad behavior. “Boys will be boys” or “locker-room talk” often excuse and normalize inappropriate behavior among males. It is important that we talk to our boys about misogynist terms and how they degrade women. For our girls, we can teach them that assertiveness is a valuable trait and one they should use in their relationships with their peers and with the opposite sex in romantic relationships. 

Q: Some parents might have a difficult time having a conversation about consent with their children, especially as children approach tween and teen years. What resources are available to help facilitate the talk?

A: Adolescents need to know that their parents are available to listen, free of judgment. Parents should also talk to their teens a lot, even if it seems that they are not listening. They need to accept the reality that most teens will go to parties; that there will be opportunities for sex; and that they may engage in physical intimacy — either with a hookup or by being in a serious relationship. It is therefore important to have a conversation about consent and what that entails. It doesn’t have to take place as a formal conversation. Parents can bring up issues of safety, consent and respect on the way to sports practice, or on the way to a friend’s house. Parents should also include in these conversations that their child should encourage safe and respectful behavior among their peers as well.

The Department of Justice has some wonderful links to organizations that focus on teen education about sexual assault and dating violence.  

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