This article first appeared on Rose Water Magazine and has been republished with permission.
I’ve seen a spate of articles shared recently on social media on the topic of teaching children about consent. The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21 was especially thorough and offered practical tips for parents. The foundation is basic, early, and ongoing respect for children’s bodies and their right to say no to things that don’t feel good. No to being tickled when they don’t want to be tickled. No to hugging – or being hugged by – relatives they don’t want to kiss or hug. When we make kids do stuff that doesn’t feel good to them, we’re overriding a basic protective instinct. We’re telling them that they don’t know what feels bad, or if they do, it doesn’t matter. We’re teaching them that it’s more important to do the socially comfortable thing than to respect their own boundaries. We are accidentally teaching our kids rape culture. The recent articles I’ve seen are encouraging parents to support kids’ feelings and help them express their “no” and their “yes.”
These are important lessons. I believe in them. I’m glad they’re coming into the conversation about consent, which traditionally was only considered worth discussing as teens were on the verge of becoming sexual.
And it’s got me thinking about the other side of the adult-child consent equation.
What does it teach my kids if I let my kids do stuff that hurts me?
Children learn so much by imitation. Children are sponges and are sensitive to mood, energy and tone. If my kid hurts me and I act like it’s okay, I’m modeling a lack of self-respect and an absence of true consent that I would never want to pass on to them.
Consent doesn’t just look like an absence of “no.” It looks like an enthusiastic “yes.” When I let my kids do things stuff to me that I don’t like, I’m subliminally teaching them it’s okay to touch women in ways that the woman doesn’t want to be touched.
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My youngest is a very active six-month-old. He loves to move. He crawls, he clambers, and his tiny hands are always reaching. He’s super social, fascinated by the wide world all around. Unless we’re in a dark, quiet place, he’d like nothing more than to stand, bounce, twist, wiggle and pull while he breastfed, so that he can see everything all at once. I remember letting my eldest breastfeed in some pretty contorted positions, allowing it because it seemed natural to him and I hated to say no to him unless it was really important. In the years since then, I’ve done some personal work that’s helped me get more in touch with my boundaries, what feels good and bad to me and how I want to be touched. I’m also a little older and a little more tired; with two kids, it’s essential for me to pay attention to what gives me energy and what saps it! As it turns out, cardio style breastfeeding does not give me energy and does not feel good to me. So, now with my baby, I don’t do it. If he wants to be active, he can be active. If he wants to breastfeed he’s welcome. But he has to choose. My body is not a punching bag.
This really hit home for me this weekend. Our family was visiting friends in the county. They have a fantastic trampoline out back and all the kids love it. One evening after dinner, my close friend and her young son were lying together on the trampoline. A “trampoline cuddle,” they called it. I lay down beside them in the sweet woody dusk. Sensing a stillness that needed disrupting, my six-year-old hopped up. He was in high spirits, and, I think, delighted to find me without the small one attached. With an abundance of exuberance, he hopped around the cuddle pile in the middle of the trampoline. This seemed fun (although not what I really wanted) until he bounced an especially high bounce and landed directly on my soft, post baby belly. In that moment I was tired of telling him to touch gently, worn out and sad from how often lately my words to him are corralling or correcting in some way. I badly wanted to just receive him in his playful exuberance. I wanted to enter into the game. I wanted to be the free-spirited, youthful, kick-ass mom I’ve always been. And so I pretended. I pretended I was having fun when actually I was badly hurt.
I pretended to be invincible. I went along with something that didn’t feel good to me.
You know what? I had a lot of beautiful reasons for doing that. I don’t want to be too hard on myself. But next time I’ll make a different choice. I’ll find a way to enter into the play in a way that doesn’t hurt my body. I’ll meet my boy in true laughter. If I can. If I can’t, if I’m too tired and just need quiet, well, I have to say that. Even if I have to suffer his disappointment.
I have to be true to myself so that I can show him how to be true to himself, and how to be true to the partners he’ll touch when he’s a man.