Considerations for Teaching Consent
2/2/2022 | Mikhal Weiner
When my kid was first born, we were skin to skin all the time. He slept like a little kitten, curled up on my chest, and my wife and I carried him everywhere. Sometimes he was curled up in a Moby wrap, sometimes we were simply snuggling him, but always touching one another. This makes sense, of course. He had just emerged from the warm embrace of my womb; the physical connection was all he needed.
As he’s grown into the sturdy toddler he is today, though, our little one has become increasingly independent. He can now play on his own, narrating long tales about his dolls and Legos and driving his fire trucks across the apartment to put out fires in our bedroom. More and more, he asks to do things himself: Eat with a spoon, put on his pants, bring the books to quiet time.
Our kiddo is his own person now, and that comes with boundaries. For example, even though I want to hug and kiss him basically all the time, I can’t really do that anymore. Sure, we still snuggle, hug, and dance around to music in the living room, but I can’t just pick him up whenever I want to. He’s not a baby anymore, and that’s his body, not mine.
I’m not sure exactly when I realized that my baby was no longer an extension of my own body. It didn’t happen all at once, that’s for certain. I started to notice that every once in a while he’d turn away when I was trying to give him a kiss or slip out of my arms when I tried to pick him up. At first, I thought he was just being mischievous or silly. But it kept happening.
Next, I did what a lot of parents probably do: I took it personally. How can he not want a kiss and a hug from his mama? I wondered. Do I have bad breath? My fear of rejection and my love for my child got all muddled up into a sticky mess of doubt and hurt.
Thankfully, at this point, I took a breath and remembered that, like many things, this isn’t actually about me at all. It’s about my kid, who is growing up. It’s about teaching consent, bodily autonomy, and independence. It’s about learning some life skills that are actually quite crucial to any adult human, and I should be grateful for the opportunity to teach and model them. Hey, maybe I’ll learn something here, too.
As kids, we’re too often treated as objects or dolls, but not as actual people with autonomy. Then, when we grow up, we’re expected to just have this understanding of physical boundaries and consent without ever having practiced. How can we expect our kids to grow up and respect another person’s desire not to be touched or express their own desire not to be touched when we don't afford them that same respect? Just like we teach them to use a fork and spoon and to pull up their pants after using the potty, we need to teach them about boundaries and consent.
And, just like any other moment in parenting, we need to model the behaviors as well.
Ever since I had this aha moment, my wife and I have begun to ask my kiddo if it’s all right for us to kiss and give him a hug. Before we tickle him, we give a fair warning so that he can say it’s not a good time. We don’t pick him up without asking. Whenever he says that it’s enough tickling or hugging, we stop. No questions asked although we do thank him for letting us know that it was time to stop. And when we don’t want him to climb on or tickle us, I say so. If the tickling doesn’t cease, we remind him that when people ask to stop touching them we have to do so.
This isn’t easy! It goes against all the patterns of behavior with which we were raised. How many times was I asked to give an auntie or uncle a kiss, even though I didn’t want to? Still, we believe that this is a crucial part of our role as parents, worth every awkward and crunchy moment.
Mikhal Weiner is a freelance essayist and journalist originally from Israel, currently working and living in Brooklyn. Her writing has been featured byNewsweek, Real Simple, Parents Magazine, and Lilith, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @mikhalweiner
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