I was with a friend of mine and our kids at a play cafe recently. My 3-year-old found a corner to play in because it was busy and she was overwhelmed. My friend’s one-year-old son found her and tried to take the “computer” (large calculator) she was playing with, so she said something like, “You can’t have it, it’s my turn. And anyway, you’re a baby and babies can’t play with computers.” She made some good points.
My friend and I had a good chuckle over this exchange and noticed how much parenting, and therefore childhood, has changed over the past few decades – when it comes to kids’ autonomy specifically. What we consider as acceptable for kids to say and do is very different these days. I don’t remember which one of us said, “Hey mom, you can’t tell me what to do. I have rights now!”
It’s true! And it’s wonderful! And it can also be hard to navigate. My girls are 19 months, and almost 4, so my perspective on kids and consent is based on parenting very young children; which I think also happens to be the most crucial time to teach them about consent. As they are discovering that they are, in fact, separate from their parents, I am doing my best to teach my kids that they also have autonomy.
I am an over-communicator – at least with my kids – and so in some ways introducing the idea of consent at a very young age was easy. From birth I talked them through the diaper changes, baths, and really anything else we were doing, using anatomically correct words and very little baby talk. And I believe this is where consent begins: giving kids the language to understand and pay attention to their own bodies in everyday situations.
You may have seen the video that was shared on social media of sexuality educator Deanne Carson saying that parents should ask for their baby’s consent before changing their diaper. It was met with mixed reactions. I personally would not phrase something like that as a question because it’s not optional (unless the question to an older child is: “Do you want mommy, or daddy to change your diaper?”), but her message is spot on: from birth, children deserve to know what is happening to their bodies, and have the opportunity to tell us how they feel about it. I think letting your child know ahead of time what’s happening is key; as is paying attention to their response and making changes if they do feel uncomfortable.
I have a hard time with Carson’s call to ask permission because I do not ask my children’s permission if they don’t have a choice. It’s misleading, and generally creates a conflict when they inevitably give me the “wrong” answer. Some things, like changing their diaper, are not optional. However, I bring consent into the equation when I give them choices about how necessary tasks will be done. For example: Are you going to brush your hair or shall I do it? This way they are making age-appropriate choices for themselves, and I am making sure they are properly taken care of. Because if given the choice, my 3-year-old would brush her hair about 4 times a year.
Another critical part of teaching consent in my home is giving my girls a clear chance to say “no” to any person or situation that makes them uncomfortable – even if in that moment it’s me! (Cue the tears.) This means they frequently refuse hugs from relatives, my 3-year-old is in fewer photos, and I give my 19-month-old a lot less kisses because she’s started saying no! (Cue the tears again.) It also means when they offer a hug or ask to be in a photo it’s almost exciting because it was their idea.
The other side of consent that I have read less, and have had fewer conversations about is teaching kids how to handle their disappointment when they are the ones being told “no”. It’s great that my 3-year-old is comfortable refusing a hug, but when she wants a hug from her sister nothing’s getting in her way! Supporting her desire for a hug while also supporting her sister’s desire for space is key. Neither desire is right or wrong – neither child is right or wrong, they just don’t work together. And less contact always wins out.
Maybe the hardest part about practicing consent has been handling sibling disagreements and tantrums. My first reaction has been to remove the biting/kicking/screaming child from the situation, but this has been making my 3-year-old more upset and she often tells me not to touch her or to put her down. This was hard to deal with at first, but ultimately tells me that I’m doing my job. Even when she’s incredibly upset/angry, she knows what’s best for her and is not afraid to tell me.
My kids are at the very beginning of a life of learning about consent, and I don’t like to think about the near future when they will start to navigate situations with peers or strangers who are not so understanding. For now, I will support my girls as they learn to be autonomous, and surround them with others who support that too.