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The line between consent and kindness

Students in a dance lesson. A Utah school made headlines by not allowing kids to say no at a school dance.
Students in a dance lesson. A Utah school made headlines by not allowing kids to say no at a school dance.

When my daughter was little, we talked to her about stranger danger and told her that if anyone ever tried to grab her or make her go anywhere with them, she should scream as loud as she could and kick, bite and hit.

She considered this thoughtfully for a while, finally saying, “No. I think I’ll just go with them. I don’t want to hurt their feelings or make a big scene.”

And … heart attack.

In that moment, I realized my daughter had a very confused idea of the line between kindness and consent. We spend so much time teaching our kids to be nice and play nice that sometimes — girls especially — get the message that kindness means letting other people do whatever they want, even if it’s uncomfortable or feels wrong.

That’s why I was so glad this week to see that a school in northern Utah’s Weber County School District re-evaluated it’s Valentine’s Day dance policy wherein kids were not allowed to say no to people who wanted to dance with them.

The school’s policy elicited a horrified response from parents across the nation, who said the rule flew in the face of everything we are trying to teach our children about consent. I couldn’t agree more.

I am all for teaching kindness. It’s a critically important virtue in today’s world. But forcing children to say yes when they want to say no is not true kindness. In the end, such a practice will only hurt the askee, as well as the asker.

Instead, school dances provide the ultimate microcosm for teaching how to give consent and receive rejection in a kind way. Perhaps if we had more of these small-stakes moments in childhood, we wouldn’t have so many predators who can’t take no for an answer because the world owes them a yes.

Done right, school dances and dating can teach kids and teens so many valuable things about respecting consent while still being kind.

1. How to ask for permission. Kids need to learn how to ask for consent. This can start as young as toddlers, prompting them to ask if “Sara wants a hug bye-bye.” Parents can roleplay with older kids how to ask a girl or a boy to dance.

2. How to give and accept rejection. This is a skill! Kids need to learn early that “no” and “stop” are important words that need to be honored. They can also learn to say no in a kind but firm way. Again, role play these awkward moments with your kids so they know how to graciously walk away or decline an invitation.

3. “No” never needs an explanation. “No” can stand alone. Children who feel guilty for saying no to a date or a dance may feel the need to make up a reason to save someone’s feelings. The asker and the askee should understand that no is always enough.

4. “No” should be the end of the conversation. The asker shouldn’t continue to hound, bully or pressure anyone, and the askee doesn’t need to mock or ridicule the asker behind his or her back.

5. The concept of body ownership. No child should feel pressured to use their body in a way that makes them uncomfortable in order to make someone else feel good. This is the same reason why we never force our kids to give hugs and kisses, even to family members.

6. How to read body language and facial expressions. In an age where kids are staring at smartphones and emojis, dances and dates are a great way to practice sensing what someone is feeling by reading their physical cues.

7. How to show empathy without forcing consent. If a child doesn’t want to dance one-on-one with someone who needs a friend, they can still include them in a group dance or even sit and talk with that person. Saying yes to kindness doesn’t mean saying yes to an uncomfortable physical situation.

The most important lesson I hope my children learn is that kindness doesn’t mean blankly giving consent. True kindness is about treating ourselves with love, too, and helping others learn to show respect. Perhaps the most generous thing our children can do for each other is to teach and learn together these lifelong skills of asking for consent and giving or declining it with both conviction and kindness.