As many of you know, I nanny for the coolest 2-year-old ever. As someone who doesn’t plan on ever having kids of her own (which is a topic for another post), having this opportunity to watch the growth and development of another tiny human is, in all honesty, one of the most fascinating and rewarding things ever.
Obviously when I accepted the position as a nanny for a little girl I was concerned with making sure that I helped to raise her in a way that didn’t reinforce gender stereotypes and that encouraged her to be confident and happy.
Her parents feel very much the same way; they praise her bravery and strength along with her kindness and gentleness, they encourage her interest in her baby doll along with her fascination with the vehicles found at construction sites, and they’re way better than I am about not defaulting to “he” when talking about the genderless animals in her picture books (woohoo, internalized patriarchy).
However, when I took the job, I never thought that I’d be concerned with the idea of teaching a toddler about consent.
See, the conversation about consent does not start with the talk about sex (at least it shouldn’t). It starts with talks (many, many talks) about bodies, agency, and respect.
Through reading I’ve done about toddlers and through my everyday interactions with one, I’m realizing that while it’s pretty standard practice to teach children not to let anybody touch them in their private areas and to tell a trusted grown-up if something feels wrong, we often unintentionally undermine these messages through our words and actions.
For example, how many times, as a child, were you asked to hug or kiss an adult that you barely knew or that you didn’t particularly like?
I have to wonder to what extent we internalized this idea that, in order to be polite or to not offend, we had to show affection to someone who (for whatever arbitrary reason) was owed it, whether we wanted to or not.
Often when we think about raising kids, we’re concerned with teaching them to listen to our rules about boundaries, to respect us, and to more or less obey. But how often do we think about their boundaries, about respecting them, and about making sure that when it comes to certain things, like their bodies, they know that they are in charge?
To be honest, before I started working with the girl I care for, I probably would have scoffed at anyone who said what I just wrote. Like, come on. Respecting a toddler? You’re the adult, you’re in charge, and you make the rules and set the boundaries. I probably would have dismissed some of those ideas as hippy-dippy and permissive.
But once I started spending my mornings with the girl – now almost two and a half! – I realized that we tend to teach toddlers that obedience is more important than consent.
I also realized that caring for children involves a lot of access to their bodies, through carrying them before they can walk, changing their diapers, bathing them, and other everyday tasks.
Since issues of consent and bodily autonomy are ones I think of every day as a feminist, being put into a situation where I’m responsible for the safety, maintenance, and well-being of another person’s body every day made me think really hard about what it means to be “in charge” of another person.
For instance, there have been times when I’ve been really conflicted about something that involves not respecting her boundaries, like changing her diaper when she REALLY didn’t want me to or undressing her for a bath that she didn’t want to take.
Forcibly removing clothing from someone who doesn’t want them removed does not feel good.
Through lots of conversations, her parents and I have some unofficial guidelines about respect and her body that we try to follow. I’ll be outlining some of these in my next post, but for now I’m interested in what you think about this topic.
Do you work with kids? Have kids? Since I’m still relatively new to this, I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say.