Consent

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By Tracy G. Cassels

Have you ever heard a parent say that they don’t believe their children should have to consent to sex when they’re older?  Or that they shouldn’t wait for someone else to consent?  I didn’t think so.  It’s pretty much a universal in Western cultures that we expect our children to understand they have their own rights to their body.  And yet we also live in a world where most people may say they get this, but feel very differently.  Some feel they have the right to touch others without consent so long as it’s meant well.  Some feel they shouldn’t be upset if someone just touches them without consent because they know the person meant no harm.  And in all this we end up with very confused children and even adults.  The problem is that our words and our actions are telling two very different stories to our children, despite our best of intentions.

When we force our children to hug and kiss grandma or friends or anyone else, we are telling them their body is not theirs.

When we force our children to cut their hair when they don’t want to or not cut it when they want to, we are telling them that our rights to their body is greater than their own.

When we continue to tickle despite protests of saying no because our child is laughing, we are telling them that saying ‘no’ doesn’t mean anything.

When we don’t explain to our children when another child doesn’t want to be hugged or touched that the other child has that right, we are teaching them that others don’t have rights to their bodies.

In fact, every time we use our greater strength to force a child to do anything (excepting safety issues, of course), we are telling them that physical strength gives you rights to someone else’s body.

All of this while preaching that they have every right to their body.  The silent message just includes “Except when…”

None of us mean to be sending this message.  In fact, I think many of us would be horrified at the thought that we were sending this.  And this means some will read this and feel defensive immediately.  But we have to overcome that and we can overcome that if we’re willing.

Last night my husband was playing with my daughter.  Let me first say that we are big on her body being her own.  We never force hugs and because she does love to hug other kids, I am often explaining that others have rights to their body and a child saying ‘no’ means she can’t hug them.  So we’re pretty big on trying to be cognizant of this in our house.

Anyway, hubby was playing something with her (there was tickling, sand, sand toys, etc.) and she was laughing hysterically, having a blast.  Suddenly, in her laughs, she said “no”.  And my husband didn’t stop.  She said “no” again, and eventually the laughing stopped and so did dad.  That’s when she got away and ran to mom, crying.

My husband had absolutely no intention of hurting her or causing her to cry at all.  He thought they were playing.  And his first response was defensiveness, he said he didn’t mean to hurt her and gave the “What’s the big deal?” tone to his voice.  I calmly explained that she’d said “no” and that if we want her to feel that her no means something, we have to respect it too.  Even though she was laughing, she said “no”.  I expected my husband to now get even more defensive because now I was insinuating he was wrong when all he wanted to do was play with her.

He took a moment, I saw his face go through a variety of emotions as he pondered what to say in response, and he settled upon, “You’re right.”  In a moment he had gotten over his defenses and was able to apologize to our daughter and told her he should have stopped when she said “no”.  And she seemed happier hearing that too.  The learnable moment led to a greater awareness for all of us and his apology in particular validated her sense of violation but also, I believe, her trust in her own body and her own rights.

I want to write that we have to teach our children about respect for themselves and others, but I think that’s wrong.  I think children have a pretty good innate sense of their own bodies and what they do and do not like, and as that is respected it should extend to others.  But we override this as parents.  So really it’s us that has to do the learning.  We have to override our own experiences as children and learn that our children have the right to their own body and we need to respect that.  And although my husband is pretty special, smart, unique, and all that, he is also both human and a parent, and if he can learn on a Friday night on a patio about how a small, well-meaning act can undermine our daughter’s rights to her body, so can anyone.

[Photo Credit: gamal_inphotos]

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Comments

  1. Morgan Finch says

    agree with this article pretty much, except this line:

    “every time we use our greater strength to force a child to do anything (excepting safety issues, of course), we are telling them that physical strength gives you rights to someone else’s body.”

    i dunno about this. like, obviously it applies with tickling. but i regularly do things to my baby she doesn’t want done to her, like put her shirt on over her giant head, or pack her up on me to leave the house, or strap her into a carseat (she hates that). I physically restrain other babies from *poking her in the eye* because they really want to do it. I use my physical strength do do things with my baby all the time, because she’s a baby and can’t propel herself in any effective way. Pushing back some misconception of consent to babyhood doesn’t seem to work.

    • says

      I used “child” for a reason. My daughter is 2 and at this age I feel it’s appropriate. I do agree we do it with all sorts of things with babies, but I also would hope we still listen to them. If they’re shrieking, we should step back and see what they are saying. Make sense?

    • Andrea says

      It souns like the points you made “disagreeing” with the author, are actually agreeing. Making your daughter wear a shirt, especially while outside tge house is safer than Not wearing a shirt. You are protecting her skin from the elements and protecting her body from being preyed upon by any perv who might “get off” on little girls. Making your daughter sit in a carseat is of utmost safety to her life. Putting her in a carrier may be upsetting to her, but if you need your hands free and can not rely yet on her following directions to be with you, it is ultimately safer for you to carry her. It is not as if you make her stay in the carrier once you get hone and are just around tge house. That is when you let her free, respecting her request for freedom and acknowleding that she would rather be down and not carried by you. Lastly, physically restraining her so she does not get poked in the eye is you stepping in to take care of her and keep her safe from other kids because she is not yet able to move away herself (it sounds like).

      From my point if view youre agreeing and even though keeping a child safe is not always what the child wants to do in that immediate moment, you are protecting your baby in the long run and should pat yourself on the back.

  2. Dionne says

    Thank you for publishing this. I had never thought of a child viewing their body rights in this way before. Very informative.

  3. Rebecca says

    I think that in some ways you /can/ emphasize consent with babies. Obviously safety issues (the car seat, wearing layers when it’s cold out) are not subject to consent, but some other items are. For instance, I’m using hand signs for bath, massage, and nurse with my two month old. In a few more months he should be able to make it clear when he doesn’t want something before the activity has started.

    My teenaged stepdaughter (now lives with us full time by her own request, which says something) has some issues surrounding consent. I don’t know what went on before she lived with us, but she is terrified to voice opinions, for instance: whether or not she wants to wear that dress, or if it is okay for me to work on her hair. Instead of saying no, she’ll clam up and if you press her for an answer she sometimes starts to cry! She’s in therapy and on anxiety meds because she gets so panicked every time someone asks her something- she’s afraid to say no to anything, and it causes her real distress! So there can, I suspect, be some very real harm caused by not respecting a child’s control over their body.

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