Most grown-ups understand the concept of consent. That understanding has been embedded in our being from a very young age. It’s borne of a deep understanding of respect and empathy and the fact that actions have consequences.
So why do some people not understand consent? And if they do understand it, why in some moments do they choose to ignore what they know? These people are the outliers and the ones in no way do we want our kids to become. What do parents and teachers need to educate children on to make sure that they contribute to a culture of sexual respect?
Mr Paul Deegan is the Head of Learning Area (Health and Physical Education) at Wesley College in Perth. He celebrates the common-sense approach shown by the College when it comes to the discussion of sex and consent. Mr Deegan says that, in cooperation, teachers and parents need to be raising children to be well-informed, compassionate, and morally conscious people who make good choices.
What should we be teaching our children?
Pornography is poor reference material
The fact that pornography is a poor source of education seems obvious to grown-ups, but it isn’t always to children. Pornography is everywhere and, for a child, it appears to be an easy, private way of learning about sexual consent. The Australian Institute of Family Studies in 2017 reported that nearly half of all children aged 9 to 16 are exposed to sexual images regularly. That means modeling from pornography may be going on for a while before a parent is indeed aware of what their child has seen.
In pornography, there is no request or answer to the question of consent. No one withdraws consent and there is in no way discussion about what feels good and what doesn’t. In fact, frequently pornography unashamedly models violent sexual interactions where consent is ignored. It’s little wonder that people, in their first sexual interactions, can find themselves in terrible situations. They can be physically and emotionally hurt and the person who caused the hurt will probably be confused and embarrassed. All of this can be avoided if we communicate with children openly from a youthful age. We need to explain pornography and how it is a terrible place to go for information.
How to ask and answer under pressure
In learning consent, we need to make children understand that they must ask for a clear, informed ‘yes’ or ‘no’ clear, informed‘yes’or‘no’, and equally empower them to truthfully answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. That isn’t always easy for teens who have a strong need to fit in and please their peers. Mr Deegan asks his pupils, “How do you say ‘no’ if you have never rehearsed it? If you haven’t said it in low-stress situations, how do you say ‘no’ when the pressure is on?”
Mr Deegan contends that many temptations come from people we know. A child’s first drink, a child’s first cigarette, is likely to be offered by a friend. We all generally find it easier to say no to an unfamiliar person than to a friend. How also, do we educate children to say ‘no’ in high- pressure social situations? The Protective Behaviours program runs in a number of educational facilities, including Wesley, and is ideal for teaching this. Children are educated to consider their needs and physical feedback and say no from a young age.
Parents also need to learn how to say no and stick to it. We all understand nag power. The kids will ask for fast food and you say no, however, they know that if they keep asking you when you’re tired or fed-up and feeling worn down, you might change your mind. When the same situation is applied to a sexual interaction later in life, it becomes coercive consent. Don’t develop children to believe that if you nag long enough you can ultimately get what you want.
To have empathy
Empathy is an important part of consent and sexual education. Empathy is the capability to understand how another person is feeling. It involves emotionally connecting with others and taking their feelings into consideration. Any kind of relationship, whether sexual or else, requires empathy and clear communication.
All children are naturally empathetic to some extent, but we need to encourage them to switch it on. This is occasionally difficult for teens, and they need our help, for many reasons:
- They frequently have undeveloped emotional intelligence
- They need to make themselves vulnerable to learn
- They might have to choose empathy over what is socially preferred, and we all know that sense of belonging is so important to them
- A lot of what they observe and witness in the virtual world and media can be the opposite of empathy i.e. violent video games, pictures, movies, graphic novels, sport, etc.
Educating children on empathy requires reinforcement and effort from parents and teachers, but it will pay off. In the age of Me, Me, Me, our young people need to understand that they are only one person of many who counts, especially when it comes to sexual relationships and consent.
Teach the facts
It’s important to furnish children with correct information about consent and sexual relationships. I know it’s hard to have those discussions. I’ve been told frequently enough by teens: “Please, stop talking about that stuff!”. But it’s important that we don’t stop. Children are regularly vague about both the facts and personal morals at the centre of this learning. They need good information to make good choices.
Explain obviously what consent in a sexual interaction means. In Wesley College’s program, they talk about “free agreement” and hone in on what those two words really mean. Free agreement is an essential part of the legal and ethical aspects of consent. This resource explains the definition and practical implications of the term clearly. Wesley classes also look at the applicable laws in Western Australia and the fact that these laws very from state to state, before moving on to further nuanced discussion.
Mr Deegan recommends using samples from the media to start discussions. The recent media reporting of the Saxon Mullins case in New South Wales is a good illustration. Showcased on ABC’s 4 corners episode, I Am That Girl, it explores the numerous complicating factors when looking at consent.
Mr Deegan also recommends the use of clips similar to this from Blue Seat Studios. It appeals because of its use of analogy and humour. Still, it’s a starting point only. The mistreatment of another person can’t be reduced to a funny analogy.
Let children talk rather than just telling them what to do. You might be surprised by what they have to say, but you won’t know until you ask. You might hear comments you don’t like, but try not to overreact. The way you respond will determine how and if they talk to you in the future.
I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Deegan when he says, “It’s not easy being a parent. All you can do is be as informed and as communicative as possible. Different children and families have different methods and requirements. Don’t feel you have to educate people on anything that’s against your value. Comfortable children come from families with clear values.”
Children learn most from what they see, not what they hear. We need to model respect and care in our relationships and all connections we make. The most important aspect of modelling is the way you treat your child. In that relationship, you show a standard of respect that they should have for themselves and for others.
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