It’s hard to miss the headlines about people taking advantage of others, sex trafficking and lives being changed forever because someone made a decision without asking for or giving consent. In today’s world, parents feel the need to understand and explain consent to their children, but how should you even start that conversation? Is it a different conversation for boys than it is for girls? Is it possible to take the need for consent too far, like when you’re changing your newborn’s diaper? SO. MANY. QUESTIONS. Here are a few answers to guide your way.

I’m the mother of 3 sons. I’ve had several conversations with them about what consent is and how to incorporate it into all parts of their lives. (If you have a daughter, check out this blog on How to Teach Your Daughters About Consent.) 

For our purposes, consent is “permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.” So, at its foundation, consent is about respecting the boundaries of the people you interact with. Especially when it comes to sex.

It’s essential for parents to not have just one conversation about sex and consent. You’ve got to have ongoing discussions. 

More. Than. One. Many conversations. 

Your son’s future, his reputation, and his relationships could be at stake.

Those conversations change as your son continues to change, grow, and have different experiences. The consent conversation I have with my 14-year-old is totally different from the one I have with my 18-year-old. When you have these conversations with your son(s), the key is to affirm, not shame them.

Why is consent such a big deal now? 

Why does it matter that I talk to my sons about consent?

How do I even begin this conversation?

Having a healthy relationship with your son can set you up for great conversations, and it can help you teach him about the importance of consent. Here’s how to get the conversation started.

Be approachable. Let him see how approachable you are.

As the mother of 3 sons, I’ve learned that they enjoy “body humor.” There was nothing better than talking about who let loose a “silent but deadly” fart or who in their class could burp the theme song to their favorite cartoon without vomiting. Despite being grossed out, I was open to them sharing. From that openness, they felt comfortable coming to me about any subject as they got older. Maybe your sons enjoy animé or sports. Whatever they like, show interest in it. Your interest is the fertilizer for the garden of communication that grows as they grow. Talk to them often about things that matter to them.

Times have changed.

It may be hard to understand why you need to talk about consent to your sons. There have been several cultural shifts regarding specific behaviors, which in the past some people may have seen as “boys being boys.” One example is “pantsing,” where someone pulls down another person’s pants as a practical joke. This behavior is now seen as problematic and can be considered “assault.” 

It’s also helpful to talk about how to talk respectfully to or about other people. Sexual innuendo and objectification are topics you can bring up in everyday life (just look at the news for a springboard). Make sure they know what’s acceptable and what can be perceived as offensive to another person.

Talking about behaviors like these helps your son navigate the waters. It can also give them the courage to take a stand when someone is in danger, on the verge of making a terrible, life-altering choice, or making poor decisions. 

Respect is essential.

Teaching your son to respect the people in his sphere of influence is paramount. Respect begets respect. Even as parents, we can demonstrate respect to and for our children. I’ve taught my sons to knock on my bedroom door and wait until I say come in before they enter my room. I also knock on their doors before I go in. 

I also taught my sons to understand words like “NO” and “stop” from an early age. For example: When they were little, we played the “tickle game.” They knew when they said the password (Queen Mommy), I would immediately stop. This demonstrated to them that their words matter, and they can say “no” as well. 

Reiterate that no means no. And make sure they know how alcohol and drugs can impair a person’s decision-making abilities.

It’s essential to ask permission and get a clear verbal response.

I remember that old saying about what happens when you “assume.” Assuming can be downright dangerous. Instead, ASK. If asking yields a nonverbal response such as a head nod or a shoulder shrug, ASK AGAIN. Asking and getting a clear verbal response helps both parties understand what’s ok and what isn’t. No matter the situation, even if consent has been given, I’ve told my sons, “If you have a doubt, DON’T.” 

In other words, make sure they know that being invited into someone’s room or apartment is not an offer for sex. Taking someone on a date (or on a third date) doesn’t mean they owe you ANYTHING physical.

Consent is demonstrating respect for and listening to the people around you. Whether your son is 11 or 18, talk to him about consent, self-control, respect, and the potential consequences when those things are missing. Consequences could be legal, social, physical or financial. It could involve expulsion from school, losing a job, being arrested or being ostracized. Not getting consent is putting your life in someone else’s hands. 

Additionally, your son has a right to voice his permission, too. 

As I was talking to my college-bound son, he said, “Young men have the burden of doing the right thing in any given situation because consent is not just about dating. It’s about respecting people.” 

I think he’s right.

Other helpful blogs:

When Should I Let My Child Date

How to Have the Porn Talk With Your Kids

Conversation Starters for Kids and Parents

Teaching Consent to Elementary Students (George Lucas Educational Foundation)

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