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Teaching Consent

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With two boys and one girl growing up in this culture, I think about teaching my kids good lifestyle practices. I think about it a lot. I was reading this article (which is hilarious and you should read when you are done here) about a very simple metaphor to explain consent.

But here’s the thing. I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain consent to adults. Sadly, we still do, and part of the problem is that we don’t do a good job of explaining consent to kids. We don’t and we should. Consent and its surrounding concepts should be part of the language/concept soup that we raise our kids in. Also, it’s a parenting super-tool. Allow me to elaborate.

We (adults) do a lot of things that push kids’ consent realities. It’s often unavoidable. We hold our toddlers down while they flatly deny consent so that we can baby wipe their filthy little butts. Those things are necessary and part of the job. But other things – like tickle games until kids melt down and we all feel bad…those are something we (adults) get to do because we are bigger and stronger. And tickling, wrestling, and chasing are all super fun when everyone is consenting. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here — I still want to tickle my kids breathless and enjoy them saying “No! Stop Mommy Monster!” while I chase them. But I don’t want to abuse my size and strength and ability if it gets out of control. Then there is the forced affection issue. It’s been written about a lot in many places, so I’ll just sum up: it’s not okay to force a kid to show or receive physical affection. Not to grandparents, aunts, uncles, people who buy Girl Scout cookies… Not to anyone. Ever.

Teach Consent

*Use the Word consent* with your kids. Get it in the language. Make it a familiar word and concept. Explain it a million times. This is a parenting super-tool. Instead of saying “Brother-Bug, don’t snatch that toy! Play nice!” Instead I can ask “Brother-Bug, did you have Sister’s consent to take that toy? Sister-Bug, did you have Brother’s consent to hit him in the face?” Nope? Well, then it wasn’t a good choice. Let’s change it. Let’s do it differently. There’s not a lot of blame or finger pointing here. In sibling spats it’s often both people who are ignoring consent. Go back and do it over again. Kid climbing all over you after a long day? Adults have consent too! “Hey, I need you to get my consent before I am your jungle gym.”

*Make it the rule in your house* and help other kids understand it. This means you get to explain consent a lot more, often in front of your kids. And again, it makes dispute resolution easier. Once everyone knows what consent means, then they can go back and do over.

*Expand the phrase to Enthusiastic Consent* when appropriate. We need to know the difference between consent and enthusiastic consent. The difference between my daughter kind of shrugging her shoulders and mumbling yes to her someday-date versus a big smile and leaning in for a kiss with yes! on her lips is vast, and I know which one I want her to feel good using. (Yes, it is hard to think about my child in these types of scenarios, but they are coming along someday and I can’t get my kids ready for them if I don’t think about them. They aren’t going to be little and adorable forever.) In the here and now, with little kids, we use Enthusiastic Consent particularly in the area of weapon and fighting games. You may not, under any circumstances, use a weapon with/on/at a person in this house/yard without their Enthusiastic Consent. Again, this leads to me doing a fair amount of explaining to other kids.

*Explain when you violate their consent* and use consent language. I’ll stick with the toddler and poopy butt scenario from earlier because that’s where the Toddler-Bug and I find ourselves these days. “I know you don’t want me to wipe your butt and you are doing everything you can to show and tell me that I don’t have your consent. I’d love for you to put your poop in the potty and then I wouldn’t have to wipe your butt like this. But until we get there, my job is to keep you healthy and part of that is cleaning the poop off you. You can say yes and consent to this and I’d love that. Or you can poop in the potty. But my job means I have to ignore your consent for this moment, even if you don’t like what I am doing.” Yes, I have this little discussion with my toddler on the daily right now. Do this with car seats, bedtime, diapers, and whatever else you can. Stop and respect their space and consent if possible – at least for a minute. Give them the opportunity to decide to consent to something they can’t control anyway.

*Stand up for your kids’ right to consent* with everyone. I was stunned and a little outraged  at Brother-Bug’s last check-up. He was doing great, everything was lovely. And then the doctor went to manually examine my son’s genitals without telling him what she was doing!! Brother-Bug did exactly right. He jumped and hit the doctor’s hands away and said something like “What the heck!?” I explained to the doctor that my kids had been taught that no one should touch their genitals without their permission once they were able to keep them clean on their own time. Ever. Anyone. And she should ask. The doctor looked chagrined and talked to Brother-Bug about what she was going to do and why. It’s one of those places where we don’t think to look for consent, but we must.

And don’t force your child to kiss, hug, talk to, high five, or interact with anyone just because they *should*. That’s just…swear words. Kids will learn how to use good manners because we show them good manners. They will learn to hug people they want to hug when they see us hug people we want to hug.

Finally,

*Give your kids a safe word*. Nope. I’m not joking. Remember the tickle games I mentioned early on? They are super fun and everyone feels good in our house because we have a safe word. It’s a funny one. One that won’t be said in the craziness of the moment like No or Stop. Ours is FishPepper. If someone in a game says FishPepper, all game play stops. Sometimes just for a moment while everyone catches their breath. Sometimes for good. We are careful about using our safe word; the big kids know that it is a powerful word and they must use it only ever For Real or it will lose it’s power. Just in the last week or so, Toddler-Bug started using it of his own free will when Papa-Bug was tickling him! It was a proud moment. Our two-year old knows how to use consent concepts!

I’m going to digress for a moment. I assumed that we just know that No Means No. And we teach that too. But sometimes we are playing games and No is confusingly fun. Sometimes it’s hard to hear. No should always mean no with kids and their games. But if we get carried away (kids or adults) it’s really good to have a fallback safe word. You can play harder. I promise.

This means more explaining. To kids friends: “Oh! Sister-Bug just said FishPepper. In our house that means she needs everything to stop for a minute until she feels safe.” To their care-people: “Thanks for watching our kids…their safe word is FishPepper…just in case you are playing. That means they need to stop until they feel safe.” To parents of other kids: “My kids taught your kid the concept of a safe word…{how we use safe words with kids}…so if you hear your child using the idea of a safe word, you know where she got it.”

I always try to do the explaining in front of kids. I want them to hear me explain and support consent over and over and over and over.

If we all did this, as parents and people who love the kids we are around, eventually…someday…we would have to explain consent to adults a lot less. And maybe our kids could do it lovingly for us!!

So go out in the world and give your kids a safe word.