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  • Writer's pictureEmily

It’s more than just the birds and the bees: how continuous conversations promote consent in our kids

ID: A hardback picture book called 'Making a Baby' by Rachel Greener and Clare Owen on top of a wicker basket, on top of a white rug with rainbow stripes. The book has a mute rainbow striped background and features different families. It covers multiples, same/different sex families, same race/interracial families and wheelchair using families.

The birds and the bees. Where babies come from. Whatever you call it, it’s certainly something that’s important to making the world go round, and it’s definitely something that children will ask about at some point. Ask across the globe, particularly when it comes to educational systems, and you’ll see a huge variety in approaches to answering the beautifully inquisitive questions our small folk will come up with. As someone who has worked in both primary and secondary schools, and gone on to be a passionate advocate of educating in a home setting, I’ve come to realise that while there is certain benefit in teaching the biological side of Sex Ed as children get older, true and lasting understanding of consent and diversity comes from continuous, open dialogue in the home.

Context and the case for at home conversations

Most of my readership is US & UK based, so for some context, in the UK, state schools have a responsibility to offer specific teaching on sex and relationships, though only with reference to actualised bodily consent and the variety of families at the point of secondary school. The USA of course varies state to state, though just 22 mandate Sex Ed with HIV education and just 18 teach on contraception compared to 26 where abstinence is stressed. This is still relatively liberal in comparison to some countries across the world which either teach simply the ‘dangers’ of sex or otherwise. Having been in schools in the UK, the teaching offered around this can vary, going from this being a vital foundation to teaching to something relegated to Friday afternoon sessions or off-timetable weeks. It is certainly not consistent or guaranteed to be curated to each individual child and their lived experience. I’m certain there are some absolutely fantastic Sex Ed lessons taught, but for me, the concept that this topic should come through lessons or a set timetabled sessions at all, delivered by someone a child/young person isn’t particularly close to, just further highlights how conversations with families are the most important way to educate on such an important topic. Just think about it, are you more likely to listen and ask vital questions to your parent and trusted guide around what your body can do and who it belongs to (the person themselves), or the PSHE teacher you’ve met twice? My point here is less to vilify hardworking teachers but to show that your role as a parent to offer an ongoing discussion around bodily autonomy and Sex is both a privilege and a duty.

But how do you approach sharing information with your kids around relationships, our bodies, and reproduction? Are there any caveats or limitations to what’s relevant and appropriate?

Consent and bodily autonomy

Consent isn’t something I personally heard about until I was well into my teens. I come from a liberal and open family, with loving parents, but even then, I’m genuinely sure I heard about it from a teen magazine, by which point I’d definitely been wolf whistled at and had my bum randomly grabbed when walking out of a classroom. Being told to give a grandparent a kiss or sit on the lap of Santa in a garden centre was pretty commonplace for the generation I grew up in. Yet despite the overall conversation around consent now being more common, this can often be forgotten when it comes to small children.

Certainly, there are times when we need to tell our kids not to do something dangerous which might involve handling them without them audibly saying yes. Equally medical needs, additional special needs and/or still developing emotional regulation with our children can mean getting verbal consent isn’t possible practically. It is ableist to flatly say all interactions with every child should be fully and audibly consensual when there are parents having to restrain their child with sensory overwhelm from head banging, or hold them down while obtaining a blood sample. Yet there are certainly ways we can aim to approach how we act with our children when this is an option. How might we do this in a gentle way? My main way to start is how we approach greeting relatives. How often are children expected to kiss (pre/post Covid) their grandparents? To completely finish their plate of food? To smile for a photo? It’s in these times that we can model what consent looks like. I think a good way to think about it is by asking: would I speak this way to an adult? And if I wouldn’t, why is it ok to expect this of a child? Would we tell an adult to smile? Would we tell an adult to give us a hug without first gauging whether they’re into that? Would we get upset if a friend said they didn’t want to greet us with a kiss on the cheek? I certainly hope we wouldn’t, but it’s something that’s frequently done with children. If we want our kids to grow up knowing their body is their own, this can be started young. We can narrate to our babies that we’re changing nappies. We can tell our children they ‘can give Grandma a hug if they’d like to’. We can ask if they’d like a hug or a high five! These are all gentle ways to express to a child that from the offset, they are their own. I personally extend this right through to learning itself, where we follow the interests of the child, but you can start with small conversations!

An interesting conversation I had with Cathryn of @ladybirdlibrary brought up an important caveat here. What happens if your child has la health condition, and frequently has to undergo necessary medical treatment that is perhaps uncomfortable? Many children wouldn’t verbally say ‘ok’ to a blood test because it hurts, but as parent, we know it’s necessary. Equally children with a health need might be treated differently by medical professionals than a parent. In situations like this, Cathryn’s advice (from personal experience) was this:

‘My advice would be to rather than worry about what goes on in the hospital or in a medical setting too much to just focus on your personal relationship and attachment so that in times of difficulty and distress they always have you as a safe harbour to fall back on. We can’t change how the medical profession operates really on a systemic level and we can’t protect our kids from having hard times but we can give them that safe base’.

I think that can be extended to loving our children through their emotional challenges or special needs. They might have to experience being physically held or moved if they are putting themselves or someone else in danger, but if we remain their safe harbour, we can continue those consensual conversations when it's possible.

Correct anatomical names and eliminating shame

If I gave you 30 seconds you could probably come up with more nicknames for various organs and processes than the actual anatomically correct ones. As a child I used to think the word vagina was a swear word. If children can correctly point out a Tyrannosaurus rex, they can internalise the correct names for their own body parts, and giving our children accurate terms in conversations gives them agency. How might a child accurately tell a carer they’re not familiar with, for example, if something distressing has happened, if they don’t have the adequate vocabulary to describe their own body? When the correct names for body parts is a taboo subject, there's a big gap of opportunity for shame and awkwardness to develop. If vaginas and vulvas and penises (shock horror) are as commonly referenced when relevant as toes, veins and earlobes, they aren’t something to be shy of or embarrassed by. Personally I feel that letting your kids see you naked (providing they don’t mind) can be a good way to discuss this stuff naturally, modelling what different adult bodies look like.

Representing diversity

How do children learn about what a family looks like? Do we ensure their libraries represent families (and by extension, bodies) of different make ups, races, genders, sizes? I feel that by teaching children that there are multiple ways a baby can come about, and multiple ways a family can come together, we avoid othering families that don’t look like our own. Again, this doesn’t have to be a sit down, look at these different photographs lesson. Conversations come in naturally and when questions do arise, we can be armed with lots of examples that are seen as equally valid. I recently shared a fantastic book which explores just this, called 'Making a Baby' (image attached to this post). This book covers different family make ups, forms of conception, carriage and birth with an equal respect for each. It’s a brilliant start if you’re not sure where to begin. In addition to this I've curated a little collection of great books that represent diversity and consent on my bookshop, if you're looking for some inspiration.

Final thoughts

Chatting Sex Ed can feel daunting if you grew up without it being an open conversation. I hope I made clear overall that the best way to approach it is naturally! Chatting consent and diversity is important, but that doesn’t need to make it feel like a big scary deal. Open conversations, diverse books and media, and accurate terminology go a long way. Happy chatting!

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