With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, love is in the air! But Valentine’s Day is not just for adults.
In fact, many adults I know loathe it as a “Hallmark Holiday,” whereas kids await with eager anticipation the cheesy little Valentine’s cards to be delivered to whatever card-carrying contraption their teacher guided them in creating. Whether the delivery method for one’s affections is a handmade Pinterest-worthy project, or a Spiderman cutout accompanied by a box of chalky Sweetheart candies, most kids seem to LOVE all things heart-related in February.
But Valentine’s Day can also be disappointing for kids. Maybe the boy they have a “secret crush” on didn’t send them a love note through the school’s “Valentine’s Post Office” or maybe the he professed interest in a fellow classmate. Maybe they asked a girl to their school or church Valentine’s Dance, or asked to partner with them for a game in their classroom Valentine’s party, and the young lady in question said “no.” Maybe the child they like gave their most special Valentine card to someone else. Heartbreak, sadly, isn’t just an adult emotion.
When these things happen, there is absolutely nothing to be gained by downplaying, minimizing, or mocking your child’s feelings even if you are pretty sure little Susie isn’t actually the love of his life. The more you can empathize with them and share stories from your own life that they can relate to, the better. But in addition to a wonderful opportunity to bond with our children, Valentine’s Day may also prove a useful springboard for some critical conversations that we need to be having with our children around the concepts of consent and healthy relationships.
Why should we be discussing this? Why does it matter? Did you know that according to a 2017 study from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s “Making Caring Common” Project, large numbers of teens and young adults are unprepared for developing caring, lasting romantic relationships and are anxious about developing them? And they’re nervous about them because we, as their parents, aren’t talking to them about this stuff, and in some cases, we’re also not leading by example. In fact, although incidences of sexual assault have increased among young people, 61% of the study’s respondents aged 18 to 25 reported never talking with their parents about making sure their partner wanted to have sex, and 56% had never had a conversation about the importance of not pressuring someone into sex. That’s the bad news. The good news, however, is that at least 70% of the respondents reported wanting to get more information about all of this from their parents!
So how do we start engaging our kids around these issues? Start early! If we wait until our children are teens to broach subjects of consent and healthy relationships, we’re missing out on valuable years where we can provide them with important information AND share our own values around this. There are lots of easy ways to start these conversations when our children are toddlers and beyond. Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Start with Valentine’s Day! It’s a holiday all about love, but as mentioned, there will sometimes be disappointment as well. This is the perfect opportunity to talk about the fact that a healthy relationship is a two-way street, and how to handle rejection. It’s also a great time to talk about how we respectfully demonstrate our interest in another person, and gracefully accept their decision, whatever it may be.
2. From the time they are babies all the way through their teen years and beyond, we need to be protecting their ability to control what happens to their bodies and scrupulously allowing them to say “no” to contact they don’t want, whether it be a kiss from Grandma, a request to sit in Uncle John’s lap, or a hug from the friendly girl next door. Defending their right to say no not only teaches them about consent, but also that you have their back unconditionally. For more information about handling this with older children, see my December blog post on this subject.
3. Help them identify and understand healthy versus unhealthy relationships by pointing them out and discussing them. You can use couples you know or see, and also books, movies, and other media to spur the discussion even from a young age.
4. Read to them about it! A wonderful starter book for toddlers is C is for Consent by Elanor Morrison. Some other fantastic options for the elementary age kiddos are No Means No! and Let’s Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent & Respect, both by Jayneen Sanders. For parents that aren’t sure how to start the conversation, (about this and other “sensitive” topics) books can be a wonderful icebreaker.
5. Demonstrate consent by asking your children before hugging, touching, tickling, or cuddling them and stopping when they say “no.” It’s so hard sometimes not to scoop them up in our arms, but if we can send the message that they have control over their bodies even with us, it becomes a powerful message indeed.
We likely all want our children to grow up to have loving, healthy relationships, and to be caring, respectful partners, but all to often we leave the odds of that to chance. With love on the mind this Valentine’s Day, let’s use it as a reminder that we have the power to plant the seeds of loving, healthy relationships now and for years to come!