Teens want to know how to have better relationships. Consent education can help

“Only yes means yes, take nothing more and nothing less.”

“Your body, your choice, consent gives everyone a voice.”

Rhymes like these are often used to teach and reinforce the essential definition of consent: that all parties need to fully agree to take part in an activity or behavior. While they’re catchy and memorable — a consent-related song and dance even became a popular TikTok trend — these kinds of phrases don’t cover the full extent of what’s needed for kids to understand consent in today’s world.

The primary goal of consent education is to foster healthy and respectful relationships rooted in mutual understanding and effective communication. And kids want to learn these skills. Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common (MCC) surveyed over 3,000 young adults and high school students and found that young adults want more guidance about developing caring, long-lasting relationships. “We do almost nothing to prepare young people for the subtle, tender, generous, focused, disciplined, tough, wonderful work of learning how to love somebody else and learning how to be loved,” said Richard Weissbourd, the director of MCC.

However, consent education sometimes faces resistance from parents and community members who worry that the topics covered are too mature or could encourage sexual activity. As a result, implementing consent education programs in schools can be a challenge. In Utah, for example, when state representative Carol Spackman Moss – a former English teacher – proposed a bill to mandate consent education, opposing groups claimed the legislation was an effort to teach kids to consent to sex. The bill failed.

When politicians and activists focus on the “sex” part of consent, they forget that consent can be applied to many non-sexual situations, said health educator Shafia Zaloom. Kids are navigating complex social landscapes every day, and their brains are primed to seek social acceptance. When young people say “no” to things like vaping or cheating, they’re saying no to the social power and the meaning that that person has in their relationships, according to Zaloom. That’s hard to do.

Zaloom teaches health education and consent workshops at schools and nonprofit organizations. Learning to express and respect boundaries are central to her curriculum. In a class she teaches at Urban High School in San Francisco, Zahloom emphasizes that consent is not only about getting a yes or no. The goal is to make sure people leave an experience or relationship feeling respected. “That simply means that both people feel like they were treated like they have value,” she said. Through this work, she has seen that by teaching students about consent, schools can create a lasting culture of empathy and inclusion that benefits the whole community.

From space bubbles to role playing

When Zahloom defines consent with her students, she uses concepts that are suited to their developmental stage. Generally, she said, consent can be boiled down to the idea that your body belongs to you. “You get to choose how you touch and how you get touched,” said Zahloom. When she’s teaching young kids, Zaloom prompts them to think about their space bubbles so little ones can easily conceptualize how they interact with each other. Zahloom is sometimes asked to speak at schools where a young child has been hugging and kissing classmates on the playground without their consent. Adults in the school typically respond to the child by saying “no means no” with regard to touching other kids. While well-intended, Zahloom said this response teaches kids that the responsibility is on the recipient to object to something like a hug or a kiss. It’s more helpful, she said, to teach that people must actively seek consent before initiating such actions. And that a “yes” in one moment doesn’t mean “yes” always. “It’s an opportunity then to engage with kids around the reasons for consent and why they’re so important,” she said.

With older students, consent definitions are less concrete because consent can be applied to so many different situations. It comes into play when a student needs to borrow a calculator from a peer or when they are asking one another to be their date to prom. Older students are more interested in what consent looks like in action, said Zahloom, who finds that many teens already know the definition of consent.

In her classes, Zahloom has students role play scenarios that may come up in relationships. For instance, twenty-three year old Alyssa Romo, a graduate from Urban High School, participated in a role play where a classmate said “I love you” when she wasn’t ready to reciprocate those feelings. “That’s something I still struggle with,” Romo said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, like it’s okay to not say [you’re in love] if you don’t want to.’” By actively participating in these scenarios, students develop skills for navigating complex emotional situations in relationships. Role playing allows students to explore different perspectives, learn effective ways to express their feelings and boundaries, and practice active listening and empathy.

“It’s really important to meet kids where they are and to find things that translate all of this language and expectation into things that don’t feel so big and overwhelming,” said Zahloom.

More than a “moment of legal responsibility”

Sex education is often the closest schools get to teaching about love and relationships, but sex and health education programs can fall short when they only focus on STD and pregnancy prevention. According to Sex Ed for Social Change, 16 states provide abstinence-only sex education. “It’s not about how to have an ethical, intimate relationship or sexual relationship with somebody else,” said MCC’s Weissbourd. While some studies highlight the effectiveness of abstinence-based education, a recent analysis shows that abstinence-only programs do not reduce teen pregnancies or STD rates.

“There’s so much more to think about, to take into consideration, to be attuned to, if we’re really talking about promoting healthy sexuality and relationships that are grounded in mutual respect, empathy, care and dignity,” said Zahloom. She teaches students about laws pertaining to sex and consent, but also encourages students to think of consent as a “vibe”, rather than a moment of legal responsibility, meaning that consent isn’t about just checking a box and moving on.

Additionally, she talks to students about ethical sexuality, which takes into account a person’s wellbeing. So whether it’s a casual relationship or something they’ve been building up to for a long time, both people involved should be consenting and aligned. Zahloom prompts students to think about what good sex means to them. “Because you can have a consensual sexual experience that is boring. That’s embarrassing. That’s disappointing. And not that that isn’t a part of life. It certainly is. But we want to aspire to something a little more than that,” said Zahloom. “So there’s legal, there’s ethical, and then there’s what’s good.”

Moving beyond popular culture messages

MCC’s survey of teens and young adults indicates that if children do not receive education about love and relationships from their parents or schools, they are likely to seek information from popular culture, including movies and social media. While popular culture representations are not inherently negative, unchecked models of unhealthy relationships can influence young people’s perceptions. “In that way, images of the media are more damaging and dangerous than images of violence in the media,” said Weissbourd. Misconceptions can result in young people staying in unhealthy relationships, alcoholism, or domestic abuse, according to MCC’s survey.

To counteract the negative influence of popular entertainment, Zahloom assigns romantic comedies for students to watch and facilitates whole-class discussions about them. During these discussions, students identify and analyze both healthy and unhealthy relationship practices portrayed by the main characters. Romo, Zahloom’s former student, remembered watching the movie “Friends with Benefits,” and identifying the characters’ healthy relationship practices. “Like setting expectations for the relationship or boundaries or telling each other what they wanted,” said Romo. “It’s a silly movie, but that’s kind of a big deal.”

When done well, consent education can help young people to navigate relationships, establish boundaries, and build meaningful connections. Romo, who is recently single after ending a five-year-long relationship, said she’s insistent on how people treat her because of what she learned in Zahloom’s class. “We had a lot of conversations about setting boundaries and being conscious of what you want out of a relationship and a partner and the people in your life,” said Romo. “That really stuck with me.”

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