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Erin Stewart: Do your children understand consent?

Erin Stewart shares ways to help raise children who understand no, accept rejection and always ask.
Erin Stewart shares ways to help raise children who understand no, accept rejection and always ask.

As horrible as it was to watch, the testimonies of Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford have sparked some conversations in our home about topics we normally don’t banter about during dinner. How much proof does an accuser need, and is it reasonable to expect evidence from victims? How much should actions made as a teen affect the rest of your life? What’s the role of alcohol in accountability? Why don’t victims tell sooner? How can society encourage women to speak out?

One night, as my husband and I were talking, our oldest daughter was listening and asked, “What is consent?”

We had been using the term a lot in that particular discussion and I casually answered her that consent means giving your permission for something to happen. But later, I thought about it and the idea of consent goes so much deeper than my simple definition.

So, I went back to my daughter and gave her probably way more than she wanted to hear about what consent is and why it is so important. I narrowed my thoughts down to three main ideas:

Consent means:

1. Always ask.

2. No is a complete sentence.

3. Respect the rejection.

The first part is self-explanatory, but often overlooked. Always ask. Even if the answer has been yes in the past. Even if you think you know what the answer is. Even if you know good and well that person said yes to the exact same question when someone else asked it two months ago. When it comes to consent, asking is the first step, and it should be done every step of the way, even from that first kiss. Get an explicit yes, or else it’s a no.

The second part is that no is a complete sentence. No doesn’t need explanations or qualifiers. A woman or a man should be able to say no to any sort of physical or emotional contact and not have to answer follow-up questions. Often, I think women especially end up saying yes because they don’t have a good reason to say no. They don’t need one.

And finally, one of the biggest problems I’ve seen with the idea of consent is that we have trouble accepting a rejection. We are taught in society to go after what we want. Never quit! Try, try again! Go out and take what you deserve! But this doesn’t apply to consent. If your girlfriend or boyfriend (or wife or friend or whatever) says they don’t want to kiss, to have sex, to go out with you or a million other things, then that’s the answer. Don’t keep pushing or crusading or campaigning for what you want. No does not mean “convince me.”

Whether you’re a parent to boys or girls, consent is key and should be taught early and often. Role-play with your kids during family night. Show them what consensual physical activity looks like. Have them practice walking away after rejection. Whatever you do, talk about it. Teach them.

Sometimes I wish we didn’t live in a world where we had to have these discussions with our children, but then I remember that predators and victims have always been a part of the human story. At least we live in an era where we are talking about these issues, where we are asking ourselves and our children to make it better.

I’m raising two daughters and a son, and you better believe I’m making it my personal mission to help raise a generation where giving and getting consent is simply second nature.