In this post, I’m breaking down how how I explained the Aziz Ansari story to my kids, beginning an important conversation about consent and respect.
“Mom, what was that thing you were talking about to Daddy the other day? The thing about the girl and the comedian?”
Selective hearing is my 10-year-old son’s specialty. My entreaties to pick up his room and practice guitar fall on non-cooperative tween ears. But when I don’t want him to listen—or don’t think he can hear me—he picks up every word.
This is what happened the other day, during a long car trip back from a ski weekend. My son was in the back seat, headphones in, concentrating on Minecraft, while his little sister, also clad in headphones, watched cartoons. Since I incorrectly thought they couldn’t hear us, I was filling in my husband on the Aziz Ansari story—both the initial report and the subsequent analysis in the court of public opinion, as exacerbated by social media and our 24-hour news cycle. My husband and I were in the midst of a thoughtful conversation, weighing the situation from our vantage point as long-married Gen Xers. To our surprise, our son picked up on the conversation and started asking questions. I gave him a quick, superficial explanation, and my husband and I stopped talking about Ansari.
I didn’t stop thinking about it, though. I texted with a good friend about it; watched as my Facebook feed split between those denouncing Ansari and those unsure what to think; and my husband and I continued our dialogue, vowing to make sure lessons of respect and consent are equally prioritized for our son and our daughter. I thought we had a few years before I had to talk with our kids about sex and consent, but kids have a way of keeping us parents on our toes.
Two days after the car ride, my son, home from school due a New England snowstorm that left the roads icy and unsafe, came me to with a question: “Mom, remember that story about the comedian and the girl? What happened?”
These are the parenting moments when you have a choice: you can tackle the question head on, or deflect. I’m a head-on parent; when my kids were small, I vowed to answer any question they asked in a respectful, age-appropriate way. It’s taught them, I think, that they can ask me anything, and I’ve gotten a few doozies over the years. (But that’s different story.)
So, in the spirit of “you ask, I’ll answer,” I responded to my son. (Oh, and yes, we’ve already had the sex talk; you can’t explain consent, after all, if you haven’t covered logistics.)
“Okay, well, the comedian and a girl went on a date. And, the comedian wanted to have sex. The girl didn’t want to, but the comedian didn’t listen to her, or didn’t understand her, and she was uncomfortable and really unhappy about their date,” I explained.
“Eew, Mom, sex is gross and bad. I don’t want to hear about this,” he said, making the face I make when I find spoiled milk in the refrigerator.
“First of all, sex is not a bad thing. Not at all. It’s natural and normal. But it is for adults, not kids,” I replied. “How about we talk about Minecraft?”
Confused, he said, “Minecraft? Comedians don’t play Minecraft.”
“Honey, lots of people, including adults, play Minecraft. Believe me, comedians, play Minecraft, okay?”
He nodded, and I continued: “Imagine the comedian and the girl were playing Minecraft, and the girl was done. She didn’t want to play anymore. She told the comedian this, and he didn’t listen. He made her keep playing.”
I wasn’t sure if he was referring to the girl’s desire to stop playing Minecraft (he can’t fathom that reality, after all) or the comedian’s reaction, so I asked what he meant.
He explained, “I mean it’s dumb that the comedian made her keep playing. She doesn’t want to. He can play with someone else or even by himself.”
You are so right, my boy, I thought. (But, I didn’t go there.)
“That’s true,” I said. “Isn’t the problem that the comedian wasn’t listening to the girl, and that he wasn’t respecting her opinion and what she wanted to do?”
“Yes,” he said, and I could see that he understood.
“Now, instead of Minecraft, imagine it’s sex, and the girl said no, but the comedian didn’t listen to her, and he touched her in ways she didn’t want to be touched, and made her really upset. Is that okay?”
“No, it’s not okay,” he said. “Can we stop talking about sex?”
“Yes, we can” I said. “But, first, remember: when you’re an adult and you want to have sex with someone, if they say no, you need to listen to them. And if you don’t understand how they are feeling or what they are thinking, you ask. You say, ‘how are you?’ or ‘do you need anything?’’
“Mom, I’m never going to have sex,” he said, rolling his eyes.
I smiled. “Okay, honey, that is your decision. But you’re a kid, and you don’t need to make it right now.”
“Okay, okay. Can I go play Minecraft?”
“Sure, honey, you go ahead.”
There you have it: this is how I explained consent to my son in a way he could understand. I have more work to do with him, of course; this is the beginning. But that is how we make things better: one conversation at a time.