Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Consent and Parenting Young Children

“I'm right and you're wrong, 
I'm big and you're small, 
and there's nothing you can do about it.” 
from Roald Dahl's Matilda

A six year old boy is asked if he's feeling brave, before he can reply his grandfather says he's "always brave!" The child then has no choice but to be brave, it has been decided for him. He is picked up and put on the bare back of a pony. The pony has also not been given a choice, but she's practiced in the art of making her preferences clear and she makes a quick move, dumping the child on the ground. The little boy cries. The adults ask, "Are you hurt or just upset?" The child manages to say, "Upset." And since that's the case, the adults tell him he's fine.

But he's not fine, he's upset, shaken, scared, and probably bruised at least a little. However, the adults have once again decided for him how he's feeling: he is fine. They have defined his experience. Later he is presented with a Bible verse from one of the adults involved that speaks of being "courageous," and the chance that he'll ever tell anyone how he really felt about the experience is diminished further.

What the child doesn't know, but the adults involved did, is that this particular pony has displaced everyone who has tried to ride her, with only one exception. They knew from the start that the chances of a 6 year old child, who had sat on a horse once before in his life - earlier that day, would end up on the ground were high.

While my husband and I were upset about the decision the adults made to put a child into a dangerous situation, it was my daughter, who will be 17 next month, who pointed out the larger issue at play in this interaction: the lack of consent on the child's part.

And why did this bother my daughter? Because she looked at this 6 year old boy, and how the adults treated him, and she saw how this treatment set him up to become a teenage boy who doesn't understand the meaning of consent.

That teenage boy will have relationships with teenage girls, or boys. And if he has learned, from the adults in his life, that the bigger person gets to decide what the other person will or won't do, it increases the likelihood that he will pressure that other teen to have a physical relationship on his terms, not based on conversations and mutually agreed upon boundaries. And as his feelings and emotions have been ignored and discounted, he is much less likely to show concern for the feelings of others once he's big enough to make his agenda the priority. 

How we interact with our children when they are small sets the example for them of how to interact with others when they are big. If we want our children to be compassionate, respectful, and empathetic, then we must be those very things in our interactions with them from birth. We must acknowledge their experience, particularly when it varies from our own. If they are frightened by fireworks but we are not that doesn't mean they shouldn't be frightened. They *are* frightened, and we need to let them know that we empathize, that we can put ourselves in their shoes, and we understand their feeling, even if we aren't afraid ourselves. Instead of saying, "There's nothing to be afraid of!" which discounts their feelings and experience, we wrap our arms around them, find out what they think would help them feel less frightened, and listen to what they have to say. 

We must validate their feelings. It is vitally important that we give them time and space, and our attention, so that they may express how they feel. We are there to listen and support them in exploring their emotions so that they may understand their experiences and gradually grow in their ability to feel comfortable with, and take responsibility for, the strong emotions they will feel during their life. This helps them grow up to have emotional maturity in their future relationships, with adults and children. 

We must also respect our children's boundaries when it comes to their bodies. That means not putting them on a pony, up in a tree, on a swing, or anywhere else, if it's not o.k. with them. It means not tickling, wrestling, or over powering them as a form of play, unless they explicitly give their consent. And even then, it means being aware of their comfort level during play, and stopping as soon as a child says, "Stop!" or "No!" 

Some children may consent to these forms of attention if it is the only seemingly positive interaction, or way of getting attention, from an adult in their life. Roughhousing can be great fun, but only if it is done completely on the child's terms and with their authentic consent, and when the child knows they can stop the play at any time. Authentic consent means that the child is freely entering into an activity without being pressured, manipulated or threatened. 

How we interact with our children, from birth, directly impacts the way they will interact with others in the future. If I want my children to be respectful of other people's boundaries, to be involved in non-abusive relationships, to not be the abuser in a relationship, to understand what consent means, and that it's o.k. for them to say no, just as it's o.k. for other people to say no, then I must model this for them in big and small ways in our interactions every day.

Update: I've written more on the topic of consent over on Raising Allies: Helping Our Children Understand Consent. There are some great links at the bottom of that post as well.

photo credit: doctressstory on instagram

Really, you should talk to all children about both safety and consent. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Our 5th Not Back To School Day

Tomorrow the children in our school district who are between the ages of 5 and 18 will get on the bus and go to school. Tomorrow our family may go blackberry picking.

As we head into our 5th year of life without school, I've been reflecting on our journey. Having had a few conversations this summer with people who weren't familiar with our family and how we go about learning, I've been reminded of how differently we approach life. After hearing about my daughter's friend who has been physically ill due to anxiety created by the thought of going to a new high school for her junior year, the sadness I feel for those kids, who are miserable but whose parents won't consider any other option, is ever present.

Today I reread the blog posts I've written about the first day of school, the effects of school on our kids and our relationships, and learning. As the school year gets underway, perhaps you will find something among them that will be helpful to you and your family. Click on the titles to read the full blog posts:

The First Day of School
"Whatever you do on the first day of school, I hope it strengthens your relationship with your child. If your child dreads school figure out why and find a way to meet their needs. If your child is begging to go to school, let go of your need to homeschool. Your child may cheerfully wave from the school bus window on the first day, but if after the first week school mornings have become something to dread it is time to look for options. Ask yourself, "What are my child's needs and how can I meet those needs?" No matter how official and in control of your child's life school may seem, remember: School is not more important than your relationship with your child. It took me years to figure that out. This will be our second first day of school that we celebrate in our own way. Last year we went to a park and made S'mores. How are you going to celebrate the first day of school with your children?"

The Other Side of the First Day of School
"You may not think that looking forward to the start of school and being a mother who yelled at her children are related. My life is an example of how directly connected they are.... I changed my parenting before our children stopped going school. Because I changed how I was parenting, my need for time away from my children decreased. Because I changed how I was parenting, my children's desire to spend time with me increased. We have chosen to be a family who loves and supports each other. We have chosen to live a life of respect and connection. Because of this, our lives have been transformed. I can no longer imagine wanting my children to get on the bus and leave me for 7 hours. My children are sad when their friends go back to school, but they have no desire to get on the bus that drives past our house each day. Instead, on the first day of school we celebrate who we are as a family. In small ways we mark the day that reminds us how far we have come and the blessings of our chosen way of life."

Does Your Child Want to Stay Home from School? 
"...Recently a mother posted that her child did not want to go to school.  She admitted that the child did not like school and would do anything to stay home, including faking being sick.  She was obviously frustrated and angry.  Other mothers responded that they knew exactly how she felt.  Some moms had rules like "If you are not vomiting, bleeding or have a fever you have to go to school."  And one mom suggested that the frustrated mother make staying home worse than going to school.  The moms lamented that they did not know when their children were telling the truth and that made them mad....The child mentioned above told the truth: She did not like school.  She did not want to go to school.  When her mother could not or would not hear that truth, the child did what she needed to do to get her needs met: she faked being sick.  Then her mother got angry.  There is a good chance that the mom's anger was stemming from her conflict between being a good mother and meeting her child's needs, and being the good mother the school system told her to be and sending her child to school....If you have a child who does not want to go to school please find out why.  Listen to your child."

Schools, Suicides and Stockholm Syndrome
"This week there was another teen suicide in our community. The girl had been bullied for two years. As I read further articles I found that there have been at least seven suicides locally, all teens in middle school and high school, in the past year. Those are the seven we will hear about, the kids who died, but there are so many more kids in crises. Statistics and estimates vary but there are at least 11 attempted suicides for every one reported suicide. ...And even when children are so desperate that they are suicidal, parents and child still see school as the answer. Even then parents fail to put their foot down, reclaim their child's life and bring their child home. Why? Because they can't see any other way. Even when their children's lives are at risk they still identify with the captors, they still believe in the system because after a life time, 30 or more years, of being told that school is sacred they truly believe that without school their child will have no future. But here's the truth: when a child commits suicide they have no future. When a child is freed from the school system not only do they have a future, but their future expands and brightens, as do their chances of growing up to be a happy, fulfilled, functional adult."

As the school year begins remember:  Nothing is more important than your relationship with your child. The school district schedule, homework, the dress code, and grades, are not as important as your relationship with your child, your child's mental health, or your child's life. It's hard to believe that a system for education can become so influential that parents lose sight of this very simple truth, but sadly it happens every day.