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. 

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