Learning Consent From My Dad

My dad is a smart guy, one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. Like, Spock-with-a-sense-of-humor smart. Growing up, he always knew all the answers to every question I had. In fact, I’m still in awe over both his wealth of knowledge and how he interacts with the world, often to the extent that I take notes (yes, actual notes) when we have substantive conversations.

It’s no surprise to me that he has been successful in business, nor does it surprise me that for someone who is decidedly not a “people person”, he has always been a marvelous father. He’s a fascinating blend of “book smarts” and objective, yet personable, “people smarts”.

Now that I am an adult, I’m finally discovering the inner workings of how he routinely makes thoughtful and strategic decisions, including how he planned raising children.

One of my now-favorite rules growing up was about teasing. My dad’s hard-and-fast rule was that teasing is okay, as long as everybody is having fun. If the person being teased doesn’t look like they are having fun any more, it’s time to stop. Even if they don’t say “No” or “Stop”, you need to immediately stop. If the person does say “No” or “Stop”, but they look like they are still having fun, or you don’t know why they want to stop, you still need to immediately stop.

Another favorite rule was that Connor and I were not allowed to take objects from other people’s hands. We could ask for permission to hold what they were holding, but we could not snatch anything directly from their grip; we had to wait until they willingly relinquished the object. If they did not want to relinquish the object, we had to respect their decision.

What these rules have in common is consent. They taught us to respect other people’s needs, as fellow human beings of any age, because that’s the right thing to do.

My dad didn’t wait until I started dating in teenagehood to teach these lessons; he enforced these rules as soon as Connor and I were each old enough to understand the instructions and obey. The nitty-gritty “why”s are irrelevant to young children because he’d trained us to implement respect without even realizing we were doing it. All we needed to know back then was which behaviors were expected of us, which were unacceptable, and how to differentiate between the two.

How many adults do you know who still tease others past the point of the recipient having fun, or who snatch objects from people’s hands? Clearly, these are lessons that not all children’s parents taught them.

These rules have important application in interpersonal relationships — especially sexual relationships.

For example, if you learn as a child that a person doesn’t need to say “Stop” or “No” to indicate that they are not having fun, you become more sensitively attuned to other people’s emotions. Combine this with learning to not question or challenge another person’s “Stop” or “No”, and you probably won’t ever sexually assault, batter, or rape someone.

Even on a less violent scale, you probably won’t harass would-be sexual partners who reject you. Instead, you’ll respect their autonomy and move on, without bitterness or resentment, because that’s what you’ve always done.

The same goes for not taking things out of people’s hands without their permission. You probably won’t grow up thinking that it’s okay to sexually force yourself on another person (i.e., taking control of their body from them) without their gratuitous consent because you never learned to be that type of entitled, disrespectful bully in the first place.

Imagine how many fewer people would physically exploit and abuse others if they were taught these simple lessons as children. If everyone learned to always treat other people’s bodies and personhood with respect as young as cognitively possible, we could drastically reduce the prevalence of violent behavior in this world. That’s my kind of world.


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