I say ‘no’ a lot. It usually bothers people. I get it. No one likes hearing ‘no.’ But ‘no’ isn’t a bad word. It’s not a dirty word. It’s not a selfish, inconsiderate word, although we are all sort of conditioned from an early age to believe that it is. But what it really is is a *powerful* word.
‘No’ is the beginning of consent education, and it starts as soon as children can understand language. Children begin to use it when they begin to realize their own self awareness to establish personal boundaries (which is a GOOD thing, even though sometimes they exercise it arbitrarily). But that’s also when we begin to teach children…especially girls, but all children…that their consent doesn’t matter…that they should discount their own needs and desires…that asserting them is bad and sassy and selfish and rude. We teach them not to say a clear ‘no.’ We teach them that their ‘no’ doesn’t matter.
Consent education needs to start very early, because consent is an important concept that affects nearly every aspect of interaction with other human beings. Discussion and education about consent doesn’t have to involve sex. It can start as soon as kids understand spoken language, and it usually DOES. It just needs to be consistently reinforced and connected, so that when sexual contact *becomes* an appropriate discussion, it’s not new and surprising.
“You can’t just take that toy from Drew. That’s HIS, and you have to ask first, and if he says ‘no,’ you just have to deal with not getting to play with it.”
“Hey. Dad asked you to stop making that noise. It’s rude and hurts Dad’s feelings when you ignore him and keep doing it.”
“I know you want to play with the dog, but she’s sleeping and she’s not interested in playing fetch right now. Leave her alone. Maybe she’ll want to play later.”
“You don’t have to hug anybody you feel uncomfortable touching, even if they want to touch you.”
And even…”If you don’t want to eat the food at the class party, you don’t need to feel guilty for saying ‘no,’ and don’t let your teacher, or other kids, or anyone’s mom wear you down until you say ‘yes.'”
We’re pretty good with teaching kids early to respect other people’s boundaries. We just don’t stick with it, so for some reason, there’s a disconnect sometime in late elementary or middle school where ‘keep your hands to yourself,’ and, ‘ask first,’ and, ‘don’t keep going after you hear a ‘no,” stop being said and even implied. I’m not sure why. But where we really mess up is teaching kids to ignore their OWN personal boundaries for the sake of other people. We shouldn’t. We should encourage that, I think.
No means no, all the time, no matter who says it, or what it’s in reference to. That’s a lesson that can (and should) be taught to toddlers in diapers. And maybe we, as parents, can all stop joking and complaining when our kids learn the word ‘no.’ That’s not the ‘terrible two’s.’ That’s not ‘sassy, know-it-all teenager.’ That’s a powerful word, and I am glad all the kids I know learned it and use it. It means no one’s going to push them around, and they’ll understand what it means when other people say it. If kids learn ‘no,’ and how to use it they can feel confident saying ‘no’ to things they don’t want like…underage drinking…and cigarettes…and kids they like trying to talk them into doing something wrong like vandalizing property or bullying other kids…or drugs…or of course unwanted sexual contact. And they’ll respect someone else’s no when they hear it regarding those things. Or even just ‘How about one more slice of pizza.’
No one LIKES hearing ‘no.’ But if we know we don’t want OUR ‘no’s’ ignored, we shouldn’t ignore other people’s.