How Do I Teach My Kids About Consent?
Talking to kids about their love lives can be uncomfortable, but discussing consent is one of the most important conversations to have with our children. Dr. Lisa explains why she feels that when we focus on consent, we are articulating the lowest possible bar for acceptable physical intimacy. She offers thoughts on how we might rethink and reframe the entire topic in order to be most helpful to our children. Reena asks: Can we change our collective mindset on consent? And how do you explain coercion and consent to children? The conversation includes a look at how pornography factors into teenagers' understanding of consensual relationships.
May 4, 2021 | 29 min
Transcript | How Do I Teach My Kids About Consent?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 38: How Do I Teach My Kids About Consent?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional
mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,
consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: So, it’s so exciting to see teenagers that are able to get vaccinated. I kind of feel like it’s going to be the summer of love for everybody.
LISA: I do feel that, right? That these teenagers have been so hemmed in and finally we are able to safely let them roam as they should. But yeah, I mean if I were a teenager I feel like, man I have some lost time to make up for.
REENA: Can’t blame them. Really can’t blame them. It’s been hard for everyone. We got this incredible letter from mom in Australia talking about consent which made me think about all these conversations we need to be having as we’re emerging out of this.
LISA: Right? And that we can finally be having conversations about normal development again in a different kind of way.
REENA: So right, Lisa. So she writes here: ‘Dear Lisa, I’m a huge fan of your podcast.Thank you for your wisdom and valuable parenting tips. My question is a big one. How do we teach our kids about consent when it comes to teen relationships? I live in Sydney, Australia. What should we say in our homes. There’s a fine line between coercion and consent, and there are a lot of young girls who don’t even realize they’re being assaulted, and frighteningly a lot of boys don’t realize that sometimes what they’re doing is assault. As a 40-year-old I can’t even wrap my head around this line of thought. When I was a teen those stories existed but they seemed to be few and far between. What’s changed in the way kids view sex? Can we blame the rise of internet porn available to young minds 24/7 on their phones? Or is it just a lack of education both in and out of the home? I would so love any wisdom and light that you can share on this? Thank you.’ First off, you know where do you even begin as a parent?
LISA: Right? I mean this is so high stakes and so important and soon loaded and delicate and hard to even walk up to. So, where I begin is different from where a lot of people begin, which is actually really don’t like focusing on the word consent. I think there’s problems with that.
LISA: So, of course theoretically I agree with if. Of course no one should be expected to do anything in a physically intimate interaction that they have not agreed to, but the term consent is the lowest bar we could possibly articulate here. It is a legal term. It refers to, you know, if you are in court was whatever the current quote unquote consensual. Did the person give permission? It is totally in my mind like a terrible standard forgetting agreement in the bedroom, right? The idea that like, I got permission is so low. Like the way I think about it, Reena, the term consent is totally appropriate for things like getting a root canal, right? Or you know, agreeing to a surgery. Stuff like that, yes, like nobody really wants it but you do have to get permission. The idea that has become the focal word when what we’re talking about are love lives and what should be mutual and enjoyable. I know it’s well intended when adults are talking about consent but there’s a part of me every time I hear it I’m like, I think we’re part of the problem sometimes if that’s where we’re starting for where kids should be thinking about getting agreement for physical intimacy.
REENA: So, what I hear you saying, you feel like this is the lowest bar because this is a term that you use with legal transactions, and a relationship is not a legal transaction or shouldn’t be.
LISA: No. I’ll tell you exactly how I watch this translate, and this just, oh, Reena, it just makes me so unhappy and so uneasy. One of the things I get to do in the pandemic, it’s kind of a remarkable thing, is I get to go to schools virtually and I get to speak to students virtually and students get to ask me questions through the chat. So, I can see who asked but I don’t know these kids, and then I can read their question out loud without naming them, and answer their question for everyone, and it recently occurred not that long ago that a student who was clearly female sent a question to me and it was basically this. It was basically like, okay what if you’re hooking up with a guy and he wants to go further than you want to go and you’re not really worried for your physical safety but you’re afraid that if you say no he’s gonna talk bad about you to everybody?
LISA: What should you do? And I was like, oh my lord like that’s it right. So picture that scenario, and you know this is a heterosexual attraction, but these things go down you know girls press boys to do things they don’t want to do, this happens in all sorts of you know romantic configurations. But picture that scenario where the boy’s like, hey let’s do this, and the girl’s like, ehh, either implicitly or explicitly he communicates that if you don’t go along, if you don’t give me consent, you’re going to get trashed. You’re going to be spoken badly of. So, she might be like, okay, right? There is consent. Is that in any way what we would consider acceptable for that interaction? Like not even by a mile, I mean 100 miles.
REENA: So, if you say this term consent is what you call it the lowest bar how do you approach this conversation? How do you reach a higher bar? What is the appropriate thing to do?
LISA: Well, part of what we’re up against is these norms, and I’ll tell you exactly how to answer that question because the question just blew me out of the water. Absolutely blew me out of the water because the kid was asking it was like this true dilemma, like this true sense of like I’m stuck in this terrible position, and so I said two things. The first thing I said is if you, any of you, are in a physically intimate relationship with somebody and they’re pushing for something and you indicate hesitation, if you just you know if you even verbally or in any other way indicate his attention the only acceptable response from your partner is, hey, you’re uncomfortable, you’re telling me you’re uncomfortable I sense you’re uncomfortable. I don’t want to do anything you don’t want to do, right? That’s the only acceptable response, but then I said to the student and also all the students who were listening, the problem here is what you’re describing has become very normed. That it’s so standard this idea and it’s usually as boys get to press and girls are, like the boys for the gas in these physical relationships and girls with a brake and we endow girls with responsibility for regulating adolescent sexuality. I said it’s so normed that no one should be put in this position and no one should be within 10 feet of somebody who would put them in this position, and yet this has become so standardized that kids are finding themselves in these interactions in a way that absolutely just breaks my heart.
REENA: But, Lisa, the reality is teens find themselves in that situation and guy doesn’t say, oh my god she’s uncomfortable in this moment of passion I’m going to just completely stop and make sure she’s okay with this. How do we change that? How do we change what you say is a conventional norm?
LISA: Well, that moment of passion piece, you know I’m imagining and it’s hard to know exactly what goes down, you know this this writer asked about porn and there is a part of me as I’ve unfortunately in my work, encountered stories like this where it does feel like porn is starting to drive some of the script here.
LISA: Where either because guys have been watching lots of porn or they’ve picked up that script, it can feel, and I’ve cared for young women who have been in situations where it just feels like however they are expressing their refusal or their lack of interest, the train is like going and they cannot stop it, and there have been times when I’ve thought, is this fueled by a kind of hypercharged and also like we talked about in the porn podcast, like aggressive overlay that you see important. So, there’s that. So, one thing you do, again, do what you can as a parent to shut down kids access to porn. It makes nothing better and I think it probably makes a lot of things much worse.
REENA: So, when you talk about consent, what does it actually mean? When we’re having these conversations with kids about consent, it’s this big legal term, what should we be telling them? You know you talk about this runaway train, you talk about any hesitation you just stop. What do we need to be changed to our kids?
LISA: Well, I think we actually need to change the frame entirely. So, among my many beefs with the term consent is also the idea of like it has the offense-defense quality to it, like one person presses, the other person holds a line or gives in on the line, and that offense-defense framework really pervades a lot of how we talk to kids about sex. It is sort of is there all the time. So I’ll give you a for instance we’ve long studied the talk, you know finger quotes “the talk” and it turns out there’s two different talks. There’s the talk we give boys and the talk we give girls, and the talk we give boys tends to be like, dude if you have sex be sure to wear a condom. Like that basically sums it up. And the talk we give girls is, okay don’t get pregnant. Don’t get an STD. Don’t get yourself in a tricky situation. Some adults say this, I don’t say this, don’t harm your reputation, but reputation comes into this very heavily, but again it’s not like, boys, we just think you’re going to be you know kind of hog wild and girls you’re in charge of keeping this under control. So, that has been the framework. So, the whole framework’s problematic. So, the framework I think we want to operate from his parents is physical intimacy is supposed to be nice, and it’s supposed to be nice for everyone involved, and this should be joyful and pleasurable. Okay this is not always comfortable for parents to be like, my kid’s love life should be joyful and pleasurable.
REENA: I don’t talk to my kids about their love life.
LISA: I know. I mean certainly through that frame so, I think part of what enters into this is our own adult widginess with the ideas of like kids, like especially, I hate to say it and you know this is true, girls enjoying physical intimacy. Like I think we really as a culture have a very hard time with that. We as parents have a very hard time with that, and so we default into this like gas and brakes mode. Like boys you’re going to do what you can do girls, you’ve got to keep it under control, as opposed to, hey this should be really a wonderful thing. Physical intimacy is on the shortlist of life’s joys, and constantly renewable joys, and so if we walk into it with that framework everything starts to get better.
REENA: You know this reminds me sort of about sexual abuse in the conversations that you just like, what age do you start talking about it to kids about when it’s inappropriate to be touched in a certain spot, and that it happens at a very early age, like you know as young as 2 or 3, making them aware that, you know okay your parents can touch you here, your grandparents who watch you, setting those guidelines early on, but by the time they hit their teens, I mean is that when you should be having these conversations? Should you start at elementary school? What do you need to do?
LISA: That’s interesting, right? To think about there is a developmental trajectory. We talk about your body and its privacy and your right to have privacy around your body, so I do agree with you those are conversations where we should start young, saying to kids, hey your body’s private, and you know especially the parts would be covered by a bathing suit those are very private to you, and I think if anybody makes you uncomfortable you should definitely let somebody know. That is really critical, and I do wonder if that then can move that idea of becoming uncomfortable with the way someone wants to be with your body. If we could then extend that into how we talk with fifth graders, sixth graders, I mean it’s fifth grade actually that kids start talking about crushes and romance, that is ten years old like that’ usually when it happens and it’s going on like that for decades.
LISA: And so I think if kids share a little bit, and sometimes they do, about their 10-year-old crushes or whatever, I think then we can start a nice sort of slow beginning of like, well do you wanna hold hands? Like do you want to sit next to that person? And the magic word here, Reena, is want. Want, right? Want is where for me that should be the center of gravity like what do you want to have happen here? And for boys we presume the want, and I think wrongly so. We presume all boys are like looking for sex all the time. That’s not fair to them. For girls we presume no want. We erase that from the conversation.
REENA: Wow. So, Lisa, I want to go back to this letter because the parent asks, you know what’s changed in the way kids view sex? Can we blame the rise of internet porn? Is that a factor? I know you mentioned it earlier. What’s changed? What do you think? You’ve been in this field for over two decades. How have you seen this change over the past 10 years or so?
LISA: I’m sure it’s changed, actually. That part of the letter I had some questions because this writer says, you know we didn’t this was rare when we were growing up and now it feels more common. I’m not 100 percent sure that’s true. I think if we were to go back historically and could, you know, magically see exactly what the data were on non consensual interactions, I think it’s got a long strong history to be true.
REENA: Wow. That’s interesting.
LISA: I think we’re talking about a lot more. I think it is on the table a lot more, and there’s also been a norming of guys acting like jerks as being sexually acceptable. I really feel that that has become something. I mean just the way that kiddo asked me that question. It just felt like, so this is the deal. Guys do this. How am I supposed to interact? I’m like whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa this is not how it’s supposed to be, and if you get a whiff of this you should be running in the opposite direction. But the whiff of it has become so normal that that to me feels new. This idea the guys are just going to be out of control, and like we’ve just got to deal with this as women.
REENA: I want to ask you also about alcohol because that plays into it. What do we need to know about consent and alcohol and what should we be talking about with our kids?
LISA: Okay alcohol makes this whole thing it is so messy to start so much messier. So, what we know, and we’ve got good research on this, you know once alcohol is in the picture, either in terms of the person who’s committing the assault of the person who’s assaulted, if either party has been drinking the chances of there being an assault go up. And you know there’s lots of ways to slice this that the person who’s drunk has bad judgment and may be you know more likely to assault. You also can’t really get consent from someone who has been drinking. So, you know, it just it gets very murky very fast, but it’s actually an opening here, Reena, because kids do get drunk to have sex. I mean drinking and sex do get, there’s a lot of overlap of those in teenagers, and that for me has been a way to get back to this idea that this should be fun and pleasurable. So, when I’ve talked about it with teenagers I feel like, guys it’s really interesting to me if you think that you need to get drunk to hook up with somebody. Like let’s let’s think about why because this should be really fun for you, and we don’t usually get drunk to do fun things. Like if you were like, Lisa would you like some Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. I wouldn’t be like, oh yeah let me get a little drunk first. You know to sort of start, I like to start from the perspective of, we have to even question why someone’s drinking as a precursor to hooking up.
REENA: Why do you think that is?
LISA: I think they’re nervous. I think they’re scared. I think, you know, you remember, right? I mean there’s something sort of charged and wonderful about those early physical interactions. I think they’re also kind of terrified, so I think drinking helps them with that. Honestly we have some research, Reena, this is both totally shocking and not surprising at the same time, sometimes girls, we have research showing, that getting drunk help them to protect their reputations.
REENA: Oh, really?
LISA: That if they might want to you know try sex, or try something in a room in the grand overlay of what is sex.
LISA: And yet they also worry that they’re going to be slut shamed, which is a totally legit worry that they carry around. If they drink they can be like, well I was drunk, right? So it becomes this solution to a horrible problem they should never in a million years be confronted with, but as soon as drinking’s in the picture the whole thing gets so messy and so much more uglier than it already was, and so but that I do think we can say like, if you need to get drunk to hook up with somebody, or if you are hooking up with somebody who’s drunk, this is already a huge problem because this is supposed to be a fun pleasant present experience and alcohol’s going to numb that, and you’re not gonna enjoy it as much as it if you’re drunk, and I think that’s the part if we can get around the corner as adults to say look, this won’t be as pleasurable for you if you’ve been drinking or your partner’s been drinking. That’s kind of jarring to kids and grown ups to shift into pleasure, but it does get us back to the want and the mutuality, which keeps kids safer, keeps kids much safer.
REENA: I also feel like alcohol’s like this magic memory eraser. That, okay we’ve done it, and then okay we don’t have to pretend. It just can cause so many problems in teenager relationships, friendships, but it’s hard to have that conversation to get your kids to understand the repercussions of once it’s over, right?
LISA: That’s right, and you know what you say about memory eraser I think you’re totally on the button. There’s so much shame caught up around sex and desire and I think kids feel it, grown ups feel it, and so alcohol enters that story as a character who kind of blurs it all, you know, and then I think reduces some sense of shame because it reduces some sense of overall experiencing anything, and I think if we can try to go after the the shame aspect of this and really shift to this idea that young people are curious about physical intimacy, and young people are going to want to try physical intimacy, and we want them to enjoy it. We want to see this part of healthy and normal development for them to engage in physical intimacy with their age mates. If we can take the shame away we also probably reduce the chance that alcohol is part of the story.
REENA: So, Lisa, what’s your advice for parents, right? What’s the conversations we should be having that opens the door, that resonates, gets them to understand, especially in this moment in the pandemic as things appear to be starting to open up and emerge and we might be able to reclaim our lives back again as they were pre pandemic, right?
LISA: Right. I mean you could just taste it, almost, this sense of like life returning. So, here’s what I would do. Here’s how I like to think about it. So, if we toss consent, and if we toss the idea of the offense-defense framework, and if we toss the idea that there’s one conversation and for boys and one conversation for girls, I think what we’re left with is four steps that we can articulate to kids, and I’ll lay them out, and then we’ll think about how this actually happens in real life. But the first is we want kids to center on, what do I want? Like we do we want to have happen? Do I want to hold hands? Do I want to kiss? Do I want to sit really close? Or everything beyond that? So we want kids thinking first and foremost, what do I want, and especially we want this for our sons and our daughters, but especially for girls. This is a conversation we need to be having. The next thing we then want them to know or think about is, and what does your partner want? And this is the part where we can weave conversations about, you need to know that person. It’s good to have enough of a relationship with that person that you can actually talk about this or find this out. If you don’t know the person well enough to actually ask about what they want, you probably shouldn’t be making out with them. That’s a good bar. And then the third step is, well what we both want? You know in those venn diagrams of I want this and you want that, where’s the overlap? Where’s that shared space, want to do or want to try? You know that that’s what we want kids to be focusing on is that shared wanting. And then the fourth step is making sure that whatever we’re both in agreement about we do safely. You know so if it’s intercourse, heterosexual intercouse, do we need to use contraception or prevent STIs or whatever, but that idea of first what do you want? Then what does your partner want? Then what do you both want? And I will sometimes say to kids, I’m like this is where grownups usually use the word consent, for me way too low a bar. It should be what you want and your partner both want, want to have happen, and then doing whatever you want safely if needed.
REENA: This is great advice because it’s so comfortable, no matter what your kid is to have a conversation about their love life. They’re uncomfortable. You’re uncomfortable. Nobody wants to have a conversation, but nobody wants to deal with the repercussions of what could happen after a horrible situation.
LISA: And so I do think in terms of how we weave this into family life, if we start small, you know, do you want to hold hands? Do you think that other person wants to hold hands? How would you find that out? That’s, I think, how we put it on the ground in a conversational way into family life, and then we can sort of take it up from there as we hear kids talking about other kids, which they do, you know, I’m talking about are the kids maybe being promiscuous as far as they’re concerned or whatever. Instead of joining in slut shaming, or you know, whatever we could say, do you think that’s what she wants? Is she getting what she wants out of this? Is that what he wants? Is it accounting for what his partner wants? We can just keep that word and that idea going of want and shared want is the target. Consent is scraping the bottom of bottom of gaining agreement, you know, and kids do press each other for agreement, and then they get agreement, and as far as I’m concerned that’s not okay.
REENA: Wow. There’s so much from this conversation. If there’s one thing that you want to get across to parents about this conversation on consent, Lisa, what would that be?
LISA: Kids care what we say. Kids do pay attention when their parents lay down values and express opinions. We know this from the research, actually, that when parents are very clear with their kids about what their expectations are and what their values and beliefs are, it does shape kids’ behavior, and so early and often I think we should be talking with kids about tuning into what they themselves want when it comes to physical intimacy, and then our total expectation that they will be highly attentive to the words and cues that come from anyone they’re physically intimate with to make sure that that is also what that person wants. Be clear, clear. It matters. There’s no gray area here, really. It really, it gets gray fast, but I think they’re places where we can be very black and white about it.
REENA: That’s good to hear. That kids really do care because sometimes you feel like you’re just talking to a wall, but to hear you, as a psychologist, tell us that they really do care what we say.
LISA: They do. They do.
REENA: They don’t show it often, though.
LISA: That’s true.
REENA: Oh, Lisa, this is so great. We’ve got a wonderful giveaway that could be a fantastic resource for parents. Tell us more.
LISA: So, Peggy Orenstein is a journalist and writer I’ve known for a long time, admired for a long time, know well personally, and she, among her many excellent books, has written two books. One is called “Girls and Sex.” The other is called “Boys and Sex,” where she brought the full force of her journalistic skills to understanding the landscape, and they’re very current, very thoughtful interrogations of girls’ experience of the sexual landscape, boys’ experience of the sexual landscape. She gets deep into these questions about what goes down and how it goes down, and, you know, what should go down instead. So let’s give away one copy of each of those books and listeners can enter for the one or both that they’d like to win.
REENA: That’s great. I love the books that you find for us and bring to us, especially the latest releases and the current ones that you are always presenting because we just need more resources as parents and there are certain issues that resonate more with parents, so thank you. This is really terrific.
LISA: You bet.
REENA: And what do you have for us for parenting to go?
LISA: Well, actually, Reena, riffing off of what you’re saying about like it’s good to hear that kids are listening because you get the impression that they’re not. I love eye-rolling.
REENA: Really? It drives me nuts.
LISA: It totally drives parents nuts. I think it’s fascinating. I think it serves multiple purposes . I think it’s really interesting. I also think it is a way that kids can thread a very tricky needle of taking in what a parent is saying but also seeming to rebuff with the parent is saying at the same time. So, here’s what I mean. If you were to say to your kids, okay let’s have this conversation, and then you lay down the whole sex thing we just talked about, and they were to say, wow I am so glad you brought this up. I’ve been wondering where you put your values were and your perspective on this thing. Okay that would be super weird.
LISA: So, if you see all these things and they roll their eyes, I think the way that parents should receive that is, I heard you and you can tell I heard you because my eyes were rolling, which means I heard the words you said, and my parents should be very satisfied with that because it lets the kids not be super weird about it. Like, oh my god if you believe you’re talking about this, doesn’t mean they did not hear it. It means that the, oh my god, I can’t believe you’re talking about this, either verbally expressed or eye rollingly expressed is their way of taking some of that intensity out of a situation that’s hard for them too.
REENA: A new way to look at things that drive parents crazy.
REENA: Thanks, Lisa. I’ll see you next week.
LISA: I’ll see you next week.