Have you ever noticed how life comes at you in themes? The universe seems to be sending a message and it can be a nag. It knows you have something to learn, something to integrate or something you need to say. This week, I am having that experience with consent. It seems that I have some learning and some teaching to do.
Consent is a loaded word in our society. It is almost always associated with sex and rape, and there is much more focus on men getting consent from women. But in reality, it isn’t about sex. At least, it isn’t just about sex. It is about many other things. And if we practice consent all the time, getting consent for sex will be a part of our norm. And that’s what we want.
Consent is also not about men getting consent from women. And it is not a subject reserved for adults. All genders and ages need to learn about consent. There is nothing that should be imposed on another human being without their consent … ever.
As a parent, I always look for opportunities to discuss consent with my children. I know this foundation will help them when they are adults. But the words “consent” and “children” are not often used together unless we are discussing pedophilia. So how do I discuss consent with my children? Here are some examples of how I do that:
1) When my children want to touch another person, I talk about consent.
They may want a hug or to grab someone’s hand. They may want to tickle or be tickled. They may want to wrestle on the floor. Whatever they want to do, I always ask if they have permission. If they don’t have permission, they are required to get it. If they don’t get it, they must refrain from the activity. They will say, “But I want to.” And I will say, “But the other child doesn’t want to and you must respect that.” This is not a topic that is visited just once with children. It is discussed endlessly. The younger the child, the harder it is to convey. Young children have not fully established their separate self, so the topic of empathic understanding is difficult for them.
2) When my children want to use a toy that belongs to another child, I talk about consent.
My children have been known to sneak in to the other’s room if there is a toy they are dying to play with. This is especially true if the toy is new. Just like the first point, this conversation doesn’t happen one time, but it is critical that children have “stuff” that belongs to them. If a child knows they are solely responsible for the decision to share their things, they will be more generous. In other words, if they can say “no”, they are more likely to say “yes” wholeheartedly.
3) When my children want to impose emotions on another person, I talk about consent.
What do I mean? If one child feels sad and the other child is sure they are feeling frustrated, I will explain that they cannot possibly know how the other is feeling. They can only know their own feelings. Children have a hard time with the idea that the same event can evoke different emotions from different people. But if children can accept that, they will grow to be more empathic adults.
4) When my children encounter a bully, I talk about consent.
Bullies are horrible and I feel awful when my children experience bullying behavior. However, it is a learning opportunity for everyone. It is an opportunity to teach them to stand up for themselves. But it is also an opportunity to explore how it feels to be stepped on, emotionally and physically. They can call on these feelings later when they get the urge to invade another’s space.
5) When my children encounter an adult that makes them uncomfortable, I talk about consent.
This can be difficult. We have grown up in a society that believes in “respecting your elders”. But in a world with pedophiles and adults who need serious therapy, I have learned that children don’t always have to respect their elders. Of course, they can’t go around cursing at people, but they get to say “no” to them in the same way that they get to say “no” to me. Recently, I allowed my daughter to establish a boundary with an adult and it helped her to understand her power to make choices in relationship.
6) When I want something from them, I model consent.
Who are we kidding? I can talk all I want and it won’t matter if I don’t model consent. Allowing my children to have their space and be little human beings with rights has been a growth experience for me. My family never taught me that children had rights. But when I need their attention or I need them to follow an imposed schedule, I can start by knocking on their door, giving them advanced warning and asking them kindly to prepare for what is coming next.
As parents, we have a responsibility to raise the next generation in a new way. We can change society by enacting laws that put adults in jail (effectiveness is debatable). We can change society by helping adults through therapy. But changing an adult’s beliefs and behaviors is like moving a mountain. It can be done, but it takes a significant will to change. So let’s make a choice to teach the right choices to our children. If we start with our children, if we build a foundation of respectful boundaries, consent won’t be a part of the conversation. Our next generation will know it inherently. They will live, eat and breathe consent.
And we, as parents, will say, “The world has changed … and I helped.”
My new 7 Habits of Parents with Complex Trauma workshop is available here.