Like so many others in our state, I am sickened and disheartened by the allegations of sexual abuse at the Miles City high school. Former athletic trainer James Jensen has been accused of grooming and abusing as many as 100 boys. No one should have to wonder if their children are safe at school, safe in sports, or safe at home.
We spend a considerable amount of time teaching our children to “be respectful, follow the rules, do what the teacher says” but we forget to teach them that it is OK to “say no” if something makes them feel uneasy, embarrassed, humiliated or hurt.
Teaching children simple, easy-to-remember standards of what a healthy relationship looks like gives them the language and tools they need to recognize when a relationship is unhealthy. It can also give them the power to speak out and seek help.
I strongly encourage you to spend a little time today teaching your students, your sons and daughters, your nieces and nephews these important statements about healthy relationships and help them to understand that when it comes to their bodies, they have the right to say “no” — even to adults.
I work for a nonprofit, healthy relationship curriculum called Power Up, Speak Out!. We teach four statements that are true in every healthy relationship: I get to be myself, I treat others well, I can say no, and I have fun.
Here’s how to teach these four statements to the children in your life.
1. I get to be myself
While this statement might seem simple, it is really quite deep. Try asking what “I get to be myself” means. In our experience, children usually say things like:
- I don’t have to change for someone else.
- I can hang out with who I want to.
- I can have my own opinions.
Those answers are great, but we also want youth to see how much this statement encompasses. “I get to be myself” also includes family, heritage, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, appearance, race and ethnicity, height, weight, likes and dislikes and more.
Explain that what it means to “be yourself” will look different for everyone.
2. I treat others well
After asking what this statement means, make sure to add your own answers that explicitly connect this statement back to “I get to be myself.” You might include things like:
- Let others be themselves.
- Treat others how we’d want to be treated.
- Treat others with respect.
Point out that the statement is written as “I treat others well” because each of us controls how we speak and respond to others. We can’t control how others treat us, but we can control how we choose to treat everyone else.
3. I can say no
This can be a tricky statement for kids to understand. After asking children what this statement means, you may need to help them expand their thinking. There are some important answers they may not consider. You can add:
- I can say no to anything.
- If something makes me feel weird, uneasy, wrong, uncomfortable, embarrassed, humiliated, or hurt I can say no, even if I don’t have a good reason.
- In a healthy relationship, I should be able to say no without being put down for it, without pressure, without force and without fear of scary consequences.
- People shouldn’t make me feel bad for saying no.
Explain to youth that if someone allows us to say no easily, that is often a sign that our relationship is healthy. If it is scary to say no, it is a sign that our relationship is unhealthy.
Explain that relationships with adults can be unhealthy, too. If an adult is asking them to do something that makes them feel weird, uneasy, wrong, uncomfortable, embarrassed, humiliated or hurt, they can say no. And they should talk with another trusted adult about what’s going on.
4. I have fun
Explain that relationships won’t be fun every moment, but they should be more fun than drama. Having fun in a healthy relationship often makes us feel like ourselves.
Point out that these four statements are interconnected; you can’t have one without the other three if the relationship truly is healthy. For example, if someone lets you say no easily, do you think you are being treated well?
Brainstorm with kids about who they can talk to and how to talk about it if they think they are experiencing something unhealthy.
For more language to help kids think about healthy relationships, boundaries, power dynamics and consent, visit https://powerupspeakout.org/blog/.
The more we talk to children about what healthy relationships should look like, the more we can prevent things like what happened in Miles City. There’s no reason so many boys had to suffer lifelong consequences. Let’s work together to change the culture by teaching our children how they deserve to be treated in all their relationships.