Teaching Consent to a 12-Year-Old Boy

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Photo by Richard Winchell via Flickr

The word “consent” has crept to the forefront of national conversation lately, thanks to the #MeToo movement and allegation after allegation after allegation of inappropriate behavior by famous (and not-so-famous) men. Even God, a.k.a, Morgan Freeman, has now been accused of sexual harassment.

None of this was on my mind when I received an email from my son’s teacher earlier this week. Subject line: Bathroom Issue.

Uh-oh. If you’re a parent a tween boy, you know that nothing good comes from a school email labeled, “Bathroom Issue.” Especially when you know that your child is a self-described class clown who, like so many others, love potty humor and making others laugh.

What the email detailed, however, was no laughing matter. I won’t go into details here, but suffice it to say that it included joshing, joking and poking, and that some of this behavior occurred while pants were still down.

If you know tween boys, you know that they have a tendency to take things too far. In their effort to impress friends and find boundaries, they frequently blow right past any previously established guidelines. That’s developmentally appropriate. It’s a big part of how boys grow and mature. If they consistently go past their friends’ comfort levels, or hurt their friends physically or emotionally, they lose buddies and suffer social consequences; those consequences teach boys about socially acceptable behavior. If they get hurt or injured, they learn to rein back their exploration and enthusiasm just a bit; they discover what’s safe and what’s a bit too far. And when they step over family, school and community rules, our reaction shapes their view of themselves and of appropriate, accepted behavior.

But I gotta tell you: I didn’t know how to handle the bathroom issue. I mean, I don’t want my son to follow in the foot steps of Harvey Weinstein or Louis C.K. None of us do. But getting across the nuances of consent and appropriate behavior is difficult, at least in part because we adults don’t exactly have things figured out.

Then, the opportunity presented itself. While discussing the incident with my son – who clearly acknowledged that his behavior crossed a line — he told me that he’d been pretty confident of his audience, a.k.a the group of boys in the bathroom. He trusted they’d find his behavior funny; clearly, it made them uncomfortable instead. And that was my window to talk about consent.

“That’s the tricky thing,” I told him. “It’s hard to read other people sometimes. Sometimes, you think they’re up for something, but they’re not. The only way to know for sure is to ask.”

I took the conversation a bit further, and made a direct connection to kissing and sex: “Sometimes, you might think that someone wants you to kiss them, or wants to have sex with you, but the only way to know is to ask.”

I hope he got it. I think he got it. I know we’ll be discussing consent again and again and again. We’ll probably talk about it again this weekend, as a family, in conversation, in the context of the Freeman allegations. We also discussed and agreed upon a consequence for his inappropriate behavior– no phone for 2 weeks — in the hopes that this lesson will stick.

Teaching boys consent isn’t easy. It’s necessary. How are you handling consent discussions with your boys? Share you stories in the comments below.

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