Consent. “Permission for something to happen or be done: agreement about an opinion or about something that will happen or be done. (Webster Dictionary, 2018)
I have been thinking and thinking and thinking about this concept, this social construct, this skill that I, myself, am still trying to learn while I am also now responsible to teach it to my children.
Surely, I have thought about it before the #metoo movement. Definitely before the Kavanaugh appointment. Though both of these have shoved my ideas into a more intentional, conscious, inner dialogue.
Somehow, it feels heavier to me being a parent to my boys. My girls (Victoria and Alexandra), they are strong and observant, and at 3 years old, have sadly already learned that they have expectations placed upon them that are based on their gender. I fight that every day. They fight that every day. (Just ask them what they think about being told to “be a lady”!) It’s like a gift that I never intended to give them. Like when they see me make one extra loop in the parking lot to park in a lighted space, or gripping my keys as I pass by a group of 20-something boys hanging out at the gas station, or pretending to talk on the phone when I am walking to my door when there is an unknown man in the street. I know they see because they mimic these behaviors in their own play.
My boys (Henry, age five, and George, age 3), yes, they have pressures, too. Confusing pressures. My five year old has already been asked, albeit light heartedly, about whether he has a girlfriend. He already “knows” that the boy is “supposed” to be the one that initiates interest. He is worrying about how he can make a “grand ask” to his upcoming birthday party and fears being rejected or teased.
At 3 years old and 5 years old, they have already had a lot of lessons about consent. Every day in fact. Consent to be helped being dressed. Consent to help being bathed. Consent to give or receive a hug. I practice giving them a sense of agency (which includes helping them navigate positive and negative consequences to ALL of their choices.) They practice saying yes. They practice saying no. They practice different ways to say no. They practice waiting for the other person to answer yes or no. And probably the hardest for us all, they practice tolerating the disappointment that comes when someone says no when they wanted them to say yes.
I feel like I am constantly coaching as they are negotiating play. “George, please ask before you take something from Alexandra. And, Victoria, I know it is hard when you really want to play dolls and Henry wants to play Legos. I’m glad that you like to play games with your brother. And when he says no, you might feel sad or mad even. And, in our family, we let each other choose to play or not to play.”
But it’s not just about words. They have also been learning about how their body responds to situations or people. What feels good. What feels bad. What feels weird. Trusting that they know their own body even if someone else experiences something different than them. I use any opportunity I can to point this out, such as the other day at the playground when Alexandra and Victoria both hopped on the swing set. Having just learning how to pump their legs to swing themselves, they challenged each other to go as high as they could. Victoria giggled happily at the “funny feeling” in her stomach and how she wanted that to happen again. Alexandra sharply asked for help to stop the swing as she did not like the funny feeling in her stomach when she swung that high. (And, to be sure, I moved quickly to stop her as I thought that Victoria and I were about to be the recipients of Alexandra’s vomit.)
And, then, there are those days. The ones when I am especially tired and, despite my training, I resort to rationalizing the need for them to put their shirt on right-side-out and with the tag in the back. (I know logically that they don’t really. They will figure out quickly enough that it is uncomfortable. Or not. And if it is the little t-shirts with the pocket in the back, well it is a great game to give them a treat that is hard now for them to reach and “voila” the shirt is turned around. Yup, consequences.)
Or those days when I feel pressured by what other parents might think or say – because you know that I am being watched as there are four little ones milling about me at the grocery store with the cacophony of “Mama, look at me! Mama, buy this! Mama, I don’t like that he is looking at me. Mama, please, please, please, can I push the cart super fast? Mama? Mama! Mama?!” This is when bribery slips in (“If you stay seated and quiet the WHOLE time in line, I will let you have a sip of soda.”) And, for the record, it takes weeks to undo this lesson.
And so, I wonder, really, I worry, about what I have taught and what they have learned. What has really been integrated into who they are. Then, the other day as I was cleaning up from dinner and watching them roughhouse together, George laughing loudly, chasing and tickling the happily laughing Victoria when suddenly my ears perked up as I this unfolded…
Victoria (laughing): George! George!
George (laughing): Toria!
Victoria (catching her breath): Stop! George! Stop!
George (laughing and continuing): Ha Ha Ha Toria!
(I start to head toward them to intervene, but pause as Henry interrupts George.)
Henry (sharply): George! Stop!
George (stopping and sounding confused): What? Why?
Alexandra: Because she said stop.
George (confused): But she is laughing and smiling.
Henry: Well, sometimes our words and our faces don’t match.
George (stopping): Oh. Okay. Sorry Toria.
George (whimpering now): But now my heart is cracked. I wanted to play.
Henry: But, George, remember it is only fun if BOTH of you are having fun.
Victoria (laughing again and running away): Come and get me George!
Alexandra: Go, George, Go!
George (not moving, confused again): But you said stop?
Henry: George, she can change her mind. That happens. Do you still want to play?
George: Yes. But if she wants to stop again how do I get her to change her mind?
Henry: No, George. It’s not like that. Sometimes people change their minds. Even you can, too. You are just supposed to pay attention to how you feel AND ask how she feels and if you BOTH want to keep playing the same thing.
George (running after Victoria): Okay!
Maybe the learning is sticking more than I thought.
#four5andunder #toddlerlogic #respectboundaries #foundationofconsent #graceingravity #momentsofjoy #learninginprocess #somethingstuck