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How to talk to teenagers about consent, boundaries and self-control

“When young people do have bad behaviors that show that they are struggling with boundaries, we have to address it.”
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Whether Judge Brett Kavanaugh will be confirmed to the Supreme Court may come down to Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that the would-be Justice sexually assaulted her at a party when they were in high school.

Some supporters of Kavanaugh are dismissing the alleged assault as “boys will be boys.”

Senator Scott Newman of Minnesota tweeted about the alleged assault: “Even if true, teenagers!”

In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, evangelist Franklin Graham called Kavanaugh's teen behavior "not relevant."

“It’s just a shame that a person like Judge Kavanaugh who has a stellar record — that somebody can bring something up that he did when he was a teenager close to 40 years ago," Graham said.

While these sentiments suggest that teenage behavior should get a free pass, how should parents teach teens that, in fact, their behavior very much does count?

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Parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa says that teenage behavior matters, both in the immediate and long-term: “If we say, ‘oh, it’s just kids being kids, well, then bullying is OK, plagiarism is OK — and they aren’t.”

Moreover, Gilboa says, a key part of parenting is teaching our children how, by the time they are teens, to assume responsibility for their actions. “You’ve got to step up, and show the adults in your life that you are ready for privileges by holding yourself accountable and by behaving with integrity.”

The process of moving from toddler to adult, Gilboa says, “involves learning to recognize your desires and instincts, and to know when they are okay and when they are not, and respecting boundaries. Respecting boundaries is not a gendered ability and self control is not a gendered ability, says Gilboa.

“And I don’t think guys would argue with that,” she adds. “More upper body strength is a gendered ability. Our bodies develop differently with different hormones. But in general, our higher abilities are not at all gendered. Our expectations have to match that — we have to stop gendering our expectations.”

“Not every impulse should be acted on,” Gilboa says. “When young people do have bad behaviors that show that they are struggling with boundaries, we have to address it.”

Gateway behaviors parents should watch out for, Gilboa says, include kids — boys and girls — discussing other people’s bodies. This is applicable to younger children as well as teens.

“When our preschoolers and young elementary schoolers ask us innocently about strangers' bodies, we can both answer their question appropriately — talk about differences — and also have a conversation about speaking respectfully about other people’s bodies.”

Touching other people’s bodies without their permission is also a no-no, and can be taught as early as preschool (sequin flippy shirts are a great teaching tool).

Teenagers, however, need to have an explicit conversation. Gilboa recommends the following, four-step approach:

  1. Sit with your high schooler and say, “Have you heard about Brett Kavanaugh?” and “Did you hear about the latest obstacle to his confirmation?”
  2. If your child says yes, then ask, “What have you heard?” and “What do you think?” “Even if you have to tell them the story because they are not up on their newsfeed, you say next, ‘What do you think about that?,” Gilboa advises.
  3. Then comes what Gilboa says is the crux of the conversation: ask your child, “What are the odds something like that could happen among people from your high school this weekend? I’m deliberately not asking about you or your friends — this is about me asking do you sense this is a part of your 2018 reality? You really have to figure out where they are in their belief system about whether this is actually a problem,” she says.
  4. The following question is, “What keeps you from being in a situation where someone’s sexual desire overrides someone else’s consent?” It doesn’t matter what gender or even what sexuality your teen is, Gilboa says.

But if parents feel that that conversation is too candid or just too uncomfortable, Gilboa says it is worth discussing other contexts for consent — using their sibling’s phone without asking, or sitting on their bed without asking, or coming in a door without knocking.

“Little kids’ consent starts when they are tiny,” Gilboa says. “Even with nicknames: is there a name you call your kid that they don’t like? If they’re not okay with it, it isn’t okay, and that’s the lesson we’re trying to get across.”