Consent: Teaching Innate Self-Worth

I've been thrilled to see the media attention to consent, lately, especially this petition. But I haven't seen a lot about how we, as parents, foster a culture of consent in the home. And yet I'm quite sure it's the biggest piece of the puzzle. It's extremely important to be given, as children and adolescents, the tools and language to ask for and give consent, but how do we ignite the fire of self-worth in our children, so that they are prepared and comfortable using those tools and language?

There is a lot in the media - especially in the pop culture our kids are consuming - that detracts from the idea of consent, so I doubt there's much we can do to effectively counteract that, other than to build our children up from the inside, so that their first instinct is to seek consent and protect their own interests.

So how does our parenting teach or devalue consent? How about this: "Give Auntie a kiss." That's not an invitation - it's a command. Or "...if you don't kiss me, I'm going to tickle you!" Upon which the child initiates a game of kiss-denying and tickling. Some kids like to be tickled, and as consent-seeking parents we're probably careful only to play games like this with those kids who want it... after all, they're actively kiss-denying in order to get tickled. But for me this begins a stretchy grey area where consent is a game. That's frightening, when scaled up to adolescence.

My kids and their uncle playing a favourite game: Present Feet!  Every time somebody says "Prese-e-e-ent feet!", everybody lifts their feet and laughs. There can be more bonding in such a simple game of copycat than in a kiss and hug. Five minutes spent attending and responding to cues from each other builds lifetime bonds. And just as the choice to lift feet at the cue is up to each child, so are the hugs and kisses that sometimes result.
Even with infants, we carefully learn to read cues: newborns will turn their faces away or close their eyes when overstimulated or uninterested, and generally it's seen as unacceptable to continue feeding, tickling, massaging, etc. when they're expressing a lack of consent. I read a great article about this non-verbal consent-seeking among children, recently: Teaching Consent to Small Children.

I like to think I've been pretty careful with requesting consent from my children with regard to physical and emotional issues. I try to be aware of their physical needs and wishes; now that they're older I ask before posting photos or details of their lives online, and I try to make the consent-seeking between their father and myself obvious, so that they can learn by example. But I fail, too - and frequently. The places my consent-seeking falls apart are when I'm rushed (for example, coerced un-gentle hair-brushing before we run out the door), and when I'm stressed, like when I nag them to go give hugs to relatives, or to do homework or clean their rooms. I threaten them: "We're not watching a movie until your homework is done"; "if you don't clean your room, then I'm phoning your friends' parents and cancelling their visit". At the moments I say these things, they all seem so reasonable, but at the core of these threats is a disrespect for my children's autonomy and self-determination. It's hard to change, but that isn't a reason not to.

Why do we subvert consent? Why do these things matter to us so much that we're willing to threaten or hurt our own children? I think it has to do with fear. Fear of failure, maybe, on my part, but also fear of rejection. If you're a sixteen-year-old boy just venturing into the dating scene, maybe you're actually quite afraid of being rejected. Maybe putting your arm around the girl you feel attracted to doesn't feel nearly as frightening as asking her first. But maybe we can help our children feel a deep sense of self-worth, so that they understand that a rejection of touch does not demean the value of either individual, or even of the relationship.

Consent is not only essential regarding physical or sexual touch; it's important always. It's important when our boss asks us to work late. She can ask, but she can't force or coerce. It's important when we give responsibility to others: if I intend to relinquish dinner duty for the evening, I need to ask my husband or kids ahead of time instead of just dumping the job onto them, without warning (guilty).

Obviously we can't always avoid the ways we affect others' lives without consent, but the many small ways that we seek and give consent do influence the more serious situations, and the many small ways we give our children the respect and autonomy we want them to demand as adults does influence their ability to do so.

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