Let your word be ‘yes, yes’ or ‘no, no.’ – Matthew 5:37
I am committed to sex-positive parenting, by which I mean that I want to do my part to make sure my daughters grow up understanding that “good” sex is, by definition, safe, informed and consensual.
I am not always doing this well. My oldest is going to be nine this summer and I have only just procured an age appropriate book about the birds and the bees to hand to her. (I was raised on the “take-and-read” approach. It worked relatively well for me and she is, at least in this way, like me: we are both voracious and careful readers.) But to be honest, this part is not what worries me: the mechanics and the reassurance that this is all normal (and amazing, as the book proclaims) are easily offered. I have been delighted and surprised by some of the questions she has (What’s clergy? “Oh! Pastors. Pastors can be trusted adults you can talk to about important stuff.”)
I have a bit more anxiety around how to teach consent and safety, because they’re harder than simply sharing information.
Perhaps you’ve seen the great posts on everday feminism and the huffington post on sex-positive parenting, and strategies for protecting your child from sexual abuse. I read them all, I want to know. Don’t force your kid to hug or kiss or show physical affection for people. Don’t be dismissive about their complaints about other people in their space. Make sure they know that the only secrets they have to keep are super fun for everybody (“we got a bouncy house for your birthday party!”) and generally have an end date (the secret will be out at the birthday party). Help them to know you believe them and take their concerns seriously.
I struggle, though, with some things. I do want them to learn that while they do not have to hug or kiss anyone ever, when someone they know greets them, they should generally respond politely. While I want them to learn that their bodies are their own, and that, in the context of their bodies, “no means no,” I also reserve the right to overrule their “no” in certain other situations (No! I don’t want to shower! No! I want to wear flip flops! I don’t care if it’s cold!).
I also want them to learn how to negotiate. Back when they were small(er), NPR reported on the benefits of allowing your kids to argue, to disagree fruitfully, with you. “Effective arguing acted as something of an inoculation against negative peer pressure. Kids who felt confident to express themselves to their parents also felt confident being honest with their friends.” Contrary to what some parents [my husband] often joke, modeling healthy disagreement and negotiation is not the same as “negotiating with terrorists.”
Of course, teens are different than little kids or toddlers: more likely to attempt to use reason and less likely to take the nuclear option. And, indeed, just as important for building and maintaining healthy intimate relationships as respecting and expecting consent is the ability to negotiate: to negotiate everything from shared boundaries to how to spend time and where to eat. Good negotiating respects the Other, and works toward mutually beneficial resolution.
It’s not the same as cajoling, or forcing, or wearing people down. I confess, with three daughters, I am more afraid of my daughters being victimized than in their becoming aggressors – social scripts are powerful things – but I nonetheless see all that is wrong with this world when I tell my kids no – no, you may not have that, no we are not buying that, no – and they ignore me or harass me, trying to wear me down. They don’t care if it’s not true consent if they badger me ‘til I cave.
It’s not the same thing, of course. I have the power in our relationships. But as much as I want them to learn to negotiate, I also want them to learn to respect someone else’s “no.”
What I want, I suppose, is nothing less than for them to try to speak the truth – to let their yes be yes and their no be no – and to love God, self, and neighbor. Whether we’re talking about birthday parties and gift shop souvenirs or intimate relationships, it’s not the easiest thing to communicate, but it is the best thing I know.
Bromleigh McCleneghan is a pastor and author of Good Christian Sex, coming July 5 from HarperOne. Preorder here.