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The Sex-Ed Lesson You Didn't Know Your Little Kids Needed

Last year around Valentine's Day, my now-5-year-old son saw a cartoon drawing of Cupid. He asked me why the baby had an arrow, and I tried to explain the myth of the god of desire.

A while later, I heard my son convey to his sister his interpretation of what I'd said.

"If you want someone to love you, you have to shoot them." He pointed to her chest. "In the heart."

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I feel sure I will have further occasions to talk more clearly with my children about how one goes about approaching and pursuing love. But I'm also realizing it will involve more than "The Talk" on some far-away day. Talking with children about romantic relationships is an on-going process, and one that is as psychological as it is biological.

It begins with talking about consent.

Here, sex education begins as early as age 4 and focuses largely on issues of consent—how to express what you want and don't want, how to establish clear boundaries without feeling intimidated.

There's a lot of talk about consent lately. This week, Trinity College in Dublin caused some controversy by recommending mandatory consent workshops for incoming freshman. In the U.S., more and more states are introducing so-called affirmative consent—"yes means yes"—to existing high school sex education programs.

In a time when some romantic comedies border on stalker training videos, and Roosh Valizadeh suggests legalizing rape, this seems like a good idea.

But I think it all starts too late.

We live in the Netherlands, where children are taught a little expression to use when they don't like something being done to them:

"Stop, hou op, ik wil het niet." (Basically, "Stop, I don't want that.")

My daughter said this at a playdate some time ago, when another child gave her what I think was a well-intentioned but slightly aggressive hug. That's when I realized that she is already learning how to give (or not) consent, and the importance of asking for it.

Children should learn early that consent is a part of every interaction.

Here, sex education begins as early as age 4 and focuses largely on issues of consent—how to express what you want and don't want, how to establish clear boundaries without feeling intimidated. They talk about how to build relationships, how to approach someone while remaining mindful of their comfort zones and desires.

Explicitly explaining the line between complimenting a person and harassing them, between pursuing a love interest and aggressively stalking them, is more complex than explaining how babies are made or diseases can be prevented.

Teaching about consent begins long before talking about sex. Insisting that a child hug his grandmother if he doesn't want to takes away his consent. Allowing a child to grab a toy from another without asking implies that consent is not something they have to seek.

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Children should learn early that consent is a part of every interaction. That a "yes" can be a "no" and be a "yes" again later. And that consent is an active thing: if my daughter had endured the unwanted hug silently, the other child would have assumed it was OK.

As Valentine's Day approaches again, and little Cupid raises his arrow once more, I'll remember to be a little more mindful about what I say and model to my children about love and relationships. And not just on February 14—but every day.

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Photography by: Rudi Wells

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