Why Consent Needs to Come First at School Dances
A middle school dance policy aims to curb bullying but is sending students troubling messages about their ability to trust their own judgement and give consent.
According to a viral Facebook post, an eyebrow-raising policy at a Utah school requires students to say yes when asked to dance at a school function. The Rich Middle School rule raises crucial questions on teaching kids about consent and peer acceptance simultaneously, which could go far to bolstering kids' self-confidence and self worth.
In the Facebook post, a Rich Middle School mom named Alicia Hobson shared that, while attending a recent Valentine's Day event, her daughter Azlyn was asked to dance by a fellow student who makes her uncomfortable.
"She tried to say no thank you, and the principal overheard and intervened and told her she's not allowed to say no and that she has to dance with him," the Utah mom wrote. "She has the right to say no to anyone for any reason or no reason. Her body is her body and if she doesn't want to dance with someone, that's her prerogative."
She acknowledged that the "spirit of the rule" is to give middle schoolers the confidence to ask one another to dance without feeling as though they'll be rejected, but the Utah mom pointed out that "in life, you get rejected all the time."
Hobson explained that she and other families have been in touch with administrators in an effort to change the "unacceptable" rule. And psychology experts agree with the mom's concerns.
Why Dances Matter for Teaching Consent
Niro Feliciano, LCSW, a psychotherapist and anxiety specialist, tells Parents.com, "In creating policies for kids, we have to look at the messages we are sending how it may influence the 'bigger picture' of their lives. This policy encourages a mindset that is dangerous because essentially it's saying 'regardless of how you feel, make your decisions based on what someone else wants.'"
Feliciano worries that policies like these also take away a young person's sense of agency. The long-term effect: "It impacts their own self-confidence and self-worth," she says. "Even worse, where do we draw the line then when it comes to doing drugs or having sex? Should they do it so someone’s feelings don’t get hurt? We have to encourage them to trust their own judgment in making a good choice for themselves, and the message needs to be consistent."
Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and family therapist, agrees, pointing out that the downstream effects of not having your own mind and making your own choice include feeling scared, victimized, bullied, and powerless—all emotional challenges this middle school seems to want their students to avoid.
Dealing With Disappointment Is Key
As for curbing rejection, Feliciano agrees with Hobson that we need to let kids experience disappointments in the classroom, extracurriculars, and at social functions—or suffer potential downstream negative effects.
"I work with far too many college students who return home or transfer after one semester because they haven’t learned how to manage their emotions in the face of disappointment or learned how to navigate a challenge by themselves," she notes. "Too many paths have been cleared for them, so that life goes their way, and as a result, they don't know what to do when it doesn't. The result: anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and sometimes in the worst cases, suicide."
Putting It Into Practice
Instead of policies that prioritize and pit one student's feelings over another's, home and classroom discussions can address what rejection means in different situations, exploring the various reasons a student might refuse to dance. "Schools should talk about using one's mind, both to understand the experience of rejection and to make choices that reflect your agency and authenticity," explains Dr. Raymond.
Ultimately, finding a way to balance the concerns of consent with those related to bullying and inclusion is a challenging endeavor. But it's undoubtedly worthwhile. "Being sensitive to one party feeling rejected doesn't mean the other party has to give up her mind in order to do so," says Dr. Raymond. As Feliciano points out, "Wouldn't it be better to teach these kids how to say no respectfully and compassionately? Wouldn't it be better to teach them how to honor their own feelings and beliefs and at the same time show grace and empathy to their classmate?"
These are the types of lessons that not only resolve the issue that Rich Middle School is trying to address, but it also gives kids the confidence, permission, and right to make choices based on who they are and what they feel is in their best interest, says Feliciano.
As for the Utah school's policy, there are no more school dances scheduled for this year, but Hobson told Scary Mommy that the administration says they will reconsider the rule next year.