Five ways to teach your toddler about consent

Last week, I wrote about why I think it’s important to teach toddlers about consent. This week, I’m outlining some of the ways that I try to do that with the girl for whom I nanny.

While the intricacies of consent as we discuss them today relating to sex are probably not something you’re going to discuss with your preschooler, there are many ways to lay the foundations of how children understand respect, boundaries, and their bodily autonomy.

Toddler memes are obviously not my forte.

Toddler memes are obviously not my forte.

In my experience as a nanny, I hope that these foundations will serve as a model for other relationships the kids have throughout their lives, with authority figures, friends, and partners. I hope that they will enter relationships expecting their boundaries to be respected and respecting others’ boundaries, and understanding that nobody ever has a right to someone else’s obedience, affection, or body.

I’m not claiming to be any kind of parenting expert (especially since – duh – I’m not a parent). Every kid is different and every situation is different. These are things that have worked for me.

Note: I’m going to use “she” to refer to toddlers in this post, as I work with a girl and that’s my experience, but all of these guidelines are equally applicable to boys as well!

1. Don’t boss her around.

It’s tempting to go with a blanket statement of authority when trying to get the toddler to do something – “You HAVE to put on your jacket” or “because I said so”. However, I’m not necessarily comfortable simply giving orders and expecting that they’ll be obeyed, especially when it comes to making someone do something they’re uncomfortable with, and especially when that something has to do with her bodily autonomy.

So I explain the reason behind everything I ask her to do. We wear a jacket because it’s cold outside and jackets keep us warm and cozy, you have to hold my hand when we cross the street because I love you and want you to be safe, we have to change your nappy because you will be more comfortable when your nappy is dry.

Why aren’t we rude to grown-ups the way we’re rude to kids?

If she understands why she’s being asked to do something, she may feel like she has a little more power in the situation, since she can internalize the motivation for the behavior. She’s letting me put her jacket on because she wants to be warm; she’s letting me change her nappy because she wants to be dry and comfortable.

Furthermore, this puts her in a position where she feels like she’s respected as a part of any decision making process. I don’t want her growing up thinking that she should blindly obey authority figures just because they’re older or in a position of power. Teaching a child to respect his or her elders is fine, but the child should never feel like he or she should obey when being asked to do something that makes him or her uncomfortable.

2. Her feelings are valid.

Nothing more frustrating than a toddler getting upset because you gave her what she asked for!

Nothing more frustrating than a toddler getting upset because you gave her what she asked for!

As you may have noticed with the toddlers in your life, toddlers have a lot of feelings. Sometimes these feelings make sense to us as grown-ups; for instance, the girl I watch goes into spasms of delight when she sees her parents after a morning with me, and she gets frustrated and upset when the tower she’s building out of blocks falls down.

However, sometimes their feelings seem to make no sense at all – especially the negative ones!

While dealing with tantrum after tantrum may leave you less than sympathetic to your toddler’s frustration, it’s important to make sure she knows that whatever she’s feeling is valid and important to you. Doing so teaches her to trust her gut, which is an incredibly important factor in decision-making later in life, and that she can trust you not to dismiss her emotions when she’s feeling upset or vulnerable but can’t necessarily articulate why.

3. No means no.

The importance of consistency in setting boundaries with toddlers is often emphasized in parenting advice. Toddlers need to understand that when someone says “no” to them, the “no” does not mean “keep whining, you’ll wear me down” or “convince me”. Teaching kids that somebody’s “no” should be respected is incredibly important.

MyToddlersVocabularyConsistsofSayingNoI think it’s equally important that we respect a toddler’s “no”.

This might seem completely ridiculous, given how often toddlers like to say “no”. Obviously I’m not advocating that grown-ups simply give in any time a toddler says “no”; if this were the case, the girl I nanny for would wear her pajamas all day, eat nothing but chocolate cookies, and never have a bath.

However, just like we teach her that when we say “no,” we mean it, she should learn that when she says “no,” especially in cases that relate to her bodily autonomy, that should be respected too.

I personally have a bit of an advantage here; since I’m a nanny and not a parent, the time I spend with the toddler is solely focused on her. I don’t have to run errands or get to appointments when we’re together, so if she decides she doesn’t want to put on shoes today, it’s not a big deal. I understand that this isn’t realistic for everyone.

My hope is that following guidelines #1, where she feels like she’s part of the decision-making process, and #2, where she knows that I understand and respect her feelings even if I can’t completely accommodate her demands at the moment, will not only reduce the frequency of her toddler-y “no”s, but also help her understand when it’s appropriate to comply to someone else’s demands and when it’s appropriate to resist and question.

4. Nobody has a right to her body.

I will never forget the first time the toddler that I care for asserted her bodily autonomy to me (because this is the kind of thing that feminist nannies notice). I was putting her down for a nap, lying next to her in the bed. I started to rub her back to soothe her, and she very matter-of-factly took my hand, lifted it from her body, and placed it on the bed. I was incredibly impressed that even before she could speak she was able to assert that she did not want to be touched in such a clear way.

Teaching consent: so easy, a children's show can do it!

Teaching consent: so easy, a children’s show can do it!

Later, after she could talk, we were playing in the playroom, and my hand brushed her foot. She stopped what she was doing, looked me in the eye, and said very firmly, “no.” I wasn’t sure what had happened, so I said “no what?”. She replied, “no tickle.” Once again, she made her wishes clear, and I made it equally clear that I would not touch her if she did not want it.

The issue of tickling and roughhousing is one I see referred to a lot in articles about toddlers and consent. At best, tickling is about trust, and involves a mutual agreement. At worst, it can make a child feel vulnerable, as they may be torn between enjoying the attention from someone they look up to but being uncomfortable with the tickling itself.

My favorite anecdote about tickling involves a friend and her little cousin. One day my friend was making a cup of tea when her cousin came in and said, “don’t tickle me.” So my friend was like, “okay.” The girl sidled closer, scrunched up her face in anticipation, and said again, “don’t tickle me!” Again, my friend didn’t. Finally, the girl opened up one eye and commanded, “tickle me!” My friend tickled her, but stopped when she cried “don’t tickle me!”. At this point, her exasperated cousin lectured her that “I want you to tickle me, and I’m going to say ‘don’t tickle me’, but you should keep tickling me”.

I know there has been a lot of backlash from certain communities about consent laws. Some people argue that obtaining clear, enthusiastic, ongoing consent will kill the mood. But I can assure you that my friend had much more fun tickling her cousin when she knew that it was what she wanted.

hugThe second issue under this category is the issue of hugging or kissing relatives and family friends. Kids are often instructed to show physical affection for an adult that they barely know or may not like. I worry that this not only makes the child uncomfortable, but also teaches him or her that sometimes people deserve this kind of affection. The parents of the girl I work with are great with this; they’ve taught her how to fist-bump (I know a lot of families go with high-fives as well), and whenever someone is saying good-bye to her and wants a hug or kiss, they immediately suggest a fist-bump.

5. Nobody has a right to her time or attention.

Recently I’ve noticed that when we’re out for a walk, older, grandfatherly men will often stop to talk to the toddler.

She does not like this.

Not gonna lie, this is the kind of thing I think about when someone stops the toddler on the street to talk to her.

Not gonna lie, this is the kind of thing I think about when someone stops the toddler on the street to talk to her.

When someone comes close to her and begins speaking loudly to her, demanding her attention, asking her questions about what she’s doing (all with only the best of intentions), she gets very quiet and asks to hold my hand – signs that she is uncomfortable.

In cases like this, I’ll often speak for her, saying something polite about the weather, how much fun we’re having, and then something about the fact that she’s shy.

This isn’t true, and it bothers me that I feel like I have to say it to explain why she’s not super-enthused to have a random person asking what she’s doing. She’s not shy. She just doesn’t want some stranger talking to her out of the blue. It makes her uncomfortable and a bit nervous.

It’s not “shy” to not want to be interrupted when you’re playing or to be annoyed that you have to suddenly engage with someone who thinks they are entitled to your time just because you’re cute.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

There isn’t much I can actually do in these situations; I usually ask the girl to say hello to whoever is speaking to us, as I do think that’s appropriate in the situation. Any suggestions on this particular topic would be welcome!

So there you have it: things I think about whilst nannying. Obviously my work with her involves making sure that she grows up expecting her boundaries and desires to be respected. I hope that doing this influences the way she behaves with others when it comes to boundaries and bodies. She has a new little brother, and once he’s old enough that she can play with him, I expect we’ll be talking a lot about how these issues apply once she’s the person who’s bigger, stronger, and has more authority.

What do you think?

4 responses to “Five ways to teach your toddler about consent

  1. Pingback: A haircut is never just a haircut. | I was a high-school feminist·

  2. This is a very interesting perspective. I wouldn’t have considered teaching toddlers about consent in this matter as I’d just assume they were too young to understand. Very informative.


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