Should we teach toddlers about consent?

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.

What is he even doing?

What is he even doing?

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.

4 ways we teach toddlers that consent doesn’t matter.

Do we teach children that some people are entitled to their affection?

Do we teach children that some people are entitled to their affection?

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.

The topic of consent and how to teach about it has been in the news as of late, especially since California has launched an affirmative consent law.

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.

How do you balance this kind of impulse with the idea that your toddler's "no" should be respected?

How do you balance this kind of impulse with the idea that your toddler’s “no” should be respected?

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.

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9 responses to “Should we teach toddlers about consent?

  1. I have so many thoughts on this, none of which feels especially linear and coherent at the moment. I do want to go ahead and reply because otherwise I might not get back.

    I absolutely believe we should teach children consent. As a mom to two boys (7 & 5), I think about this all the time — more on that in a bit. As for toddlers, I think it’s also important. BUT…after raising two strong-willed toddlers, I know how difficult of a task it is.

    I don’t have child development research right in front of me, but from what I remember, babies and toddlers are learning about unconditional love and they’re learning to trust. The girl you nanny is very fortunate to have parents like she does and a caregiver such as yourself. I was extremely protective when my children were toddlers and did not put tasks like diaper changing and giving baths in the hands of just anyone — mostly, it was me, their dad, grandparents (occasionally, but even some of those I wasn’t 100% comfortable with — not in terms of abuse, but rather I didn’t like the way they interacted with/responded to my kids when they inevitably shouted “NO!!”)

    One of the best “tricks” I learned and used often during the toddler years was validating their feelings constantly. The book The Happiest Toddler on the Block by pediatrician Harvey Karp was invaluable to my spouse and me. The validating-before-moving-forward-concept was really spelled out well in the book. Example: Say you’re trying to get toddler to take a bath and she’s not having it and begins screaming NO and is on the verge of a full-on tantrum. For me anyway, my initial reaction was fury — like I would fall into that ‘I’m the parent and you should obey’ mindset which is a lose-lose. Karp suggests, instead of picking up the screaming toddler by force, repeating to the point of feeling ridiculous back to child what she’s saying/feeling. “You don’t want to take a bath. I know that’s no fun and you’re cold and don’t want to take off your clothes. I know you don’t want to take a bath….” on and on and on for as long as it takes for her to calm down. You pretty much put yourself on repeat. He actually recommends something called Toddler-ease where the caregiver actually speaks in a toddler-like language — that didn’t work as well for me mostly because it seemed ridiculous and my kids were relatively verbal early on so normal/simple language worked for us. But you continue validating (and sometimes it takes a while) until they stop screaming. Only once they are calm (or at least calmer and not screaming), do you move into directing them to what you want them to do. The idea is that they see that you (the adult, person in power, caregiver) actually sees the situation from their perspective, so they’re not simply being forced against their will. So in this case, after repeatedly validating their feelings AND they’ve settled, you would say, “I know taking a bath is no fun (again still repeating if necessary) but we have to get you cleaned up so you can get to bed and get a good night’s rest.” There were so many times that I was calmly saying this WHILE gently taking off their clothes for the bath. IF they began screaming again, I’d have to stop and validate until they were calm again.

    Once we got in the habit of validating before the action, there was WAY less tantruming. They just wanted to know that we understood their frustration and where they were coming from. It was kind of life-changing for us.

    I believe these kinds of actions — validating and truly trying to see that the child is asserting herself and wants control (normal, don’t we all?) is huge in the beginning teachings of consent.

    Now that my kids are older, we have more mature conversations about consent. This, for me, is where raising boys in a hyper-masculine society is becoming challenging. More on that later.

    I have a lot more to say but I’ve written more than I have time for already. 🙂 Hope this makes sense. I am by no means an expert, but I still do a lot of validating my kids’ feelings. The other thing during the toddler years is letting them make as many choices as possible because they feel like they have no control. I found getting back to this remedied SO many tantrums. But you can’t overwhelm them with choices. I’m talking about — “Would you like your water in the pink cup or the green cup?” Letting kids know that you trust them to make decisions and you trust their judgment in a seemingly simple way is huge.

    Great post, btw. I’d love to come back and discuss my further thoughts on the importance of teaching consent. I might have to do my own blogpost on this. Would you mind if I linked this fabulous post?

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    • YES. When I started nannying, the girl’s parents explained the validating thing to me – I’d never really thought about it before but it’s so useful. It’s funny, because now there will be times where I’ll be getting ready to change her diaper, and she’ll gear herself up for a tantrum, but suddenly stop, say “I upset”, and then come lie down for the diaper change. I think that our verbal validation of her feelings has helped her learn that she can state her feelings and we’ll respect them as much as we will a tantrum. Further, I know that being able to put a name to things can often make them less scary or intimidating, so maybe the fact that she’s learned what her feelings are called makes them less overwhelming.

      I’m incredibly interested in your perspective raising boys, since so far my only experience is with this one girl! Please let me know if/when you write about this!

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  2. Okay, obviously this is super-important to me. I actually re-read your post after I left my response and had to add a couple of other things. I also whole-heartedly agree that children should NEVER be forced to hug or give affection to anyone when they don’t want to do so.

    I’ve had disagreements with several relatives, my own mother in particular, when she was insistent that my kids kiss Great-Gran (her mom, who had had a stroke and who we occasionally visited in the nursing home) as they were openly protesting.

    I have a good friend, a feminist, MSW therapist, and sociology professor, who frequently makes her 9yo daughter give hugs goodbye. I need to have a direct talk with her because I’m THAT uncomfortable with it. She’ll often instruct the child to give “Ms. Vivi” (that’s me) a goodbye hug. I adore the child and am happy to hug her, but often I can tell that the child doesn’t want to give me a hug. I’ve told the child that I love her and if she FEELS like hugging me, I’ll always accept hugs, but if she doesn’t, no hard feelings. I understand and sometimes we’re not in the mood for hugs — in other words, just cause your mom is saying to do this, I’m giving you permission to make your own decision.

    They’re new to Southern US culture and I know it’s my friend’s way of teaching her kids to be polite, but I think it’s more important to respect and honor the child’s feelings about what she’s comfortable doing with her own body. She would never want the child to grow into a young woman who gives her body freely to people because she feels it’s the polite thing to do and doesn’t want to make them feel bad.

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  3. I love this. I have a very good friend with a toddler, and she is 100% on board with respecting/asking for his consent in hugging/kissing/being picked up by adults. She’s taught him to say “I need space” when he doesn’t feel like being physically affectionate, which I think is terrific. If the two of us are horsing around and I’m picking him up and/or whooshing him around the room, and he says no stop, or put me down, then I will always do that. It’s sad that we have some friends who won’t listen to him, and won’t stop until he’s almost in tears.

    -katie k

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    • Ooh, “I need space” is a really good one – I like how it’s more specific than a “no” and may be easier for a kid to say than “please stop touching me” since it feels less like telling a grown-up what to do.

      Your comment about “whooshing around the room” made me think – in my discussion of this, I never talked about the fact that kids’ size makes them so much more at our mercy. Like, not only are the grown-ups in charge, but we can physically pick the kids up and move them around. I don’t remember what it’s like being that small, but that’s a really unique kind of vulnerability.

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  4. Pingback: Five ways to teach your toddler about consent | I was a high-school feminist·

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  6. To me, consent could be so much more than just a body talk.

    EX:
    Child 1 builds sandcastle.
    Child 2 knocks it over.

    This is a good time to talk about consent, about respecting others wishes. Maybe in the future:
    Child 1 builds a sandcastle
    Child 2 suggests knocking it down
    Child 1 says no OR child 1 says “Yeah!” and they knock it down together.

    Respecting child 1’s No, or verbal consent to the activity is a teaching of consent beyond just body consent.

    The common response, for example if child 2 was a boy knocking down the sandcastle, is often *shrug* “boys will be boys”.

    There are few phrases in this world I dislike more than “Boys will be boys”, as it’s commonly a way of dismissing the responsibility to teach boys to respect another person’s “no”.

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    • That’s a good point – consent isn’t always JUST about bodily autonomy.

      And yeah, I think that scrapping the ‘boys will be boys’ mindset in all of its incarnations would really set the groundwork for a culture that is much more concerned with consent and respect, since so much of that mindset involves telling the person who said ‘no’ (or who got upset when the ‘no’ wasn’t respected) to lighten up or not take it too personally, or telling men that ‘no’ often just means ‘try harder’.

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