Last night, my daughter asked me to snuggle in with her under her duvet to sing her a bedtime song. I obliged, and gently tickled her feet. “No! No more tickling!” she giggled, while at the same time pressing her feet to my hands in a way I know is indicative of wanting to be tickled more. “You said no more, so I stopped,” I explained. “Tickle again!” came the cry, and we repeated the conversation several times.
Having a daughter, consent is something I’ve considered quite a lot since she was born. I’m not for a minute implying it isn’t important for boys (perhaps more so – though not in the way the deeply misguided Roxanne Jones thinks) but I was raised to some extent to fear being attacked by someone who would remove my ability to consent – or not. But I was also raised in a wider culture that still indulges in a huge amount of victim blaming. So how do I raise my daughter to be aware of consent and the issues around it, to give her the power to understand without making it about fear and self-protection?
Well, for a start I need to model that behaviour for her. How many times have you seen a reluctant child being forced towards a looming relative in order to be hugged or kissed against their will? Think of Ross in Friends, awkwardly avoiding his aunt’s too-intimate greetings. It seems such an innocent thing – it is an innocent thing, really, in that the relative likely has no intentions beyond affection – but what’s the message the child is receiving from those people she or he is supposed to trust the most? When someone more powerful than you demands access to you, you have to give it.
I’m sure there will be people who assume I’m reading to much into this. Being made to peck Auntie Betsy on the cheek is hardly the same thing as being assaulted. Of course it isn’t, not even slightly. But the pattern of behaviour that underpins both – I’m making you do this because I can – is essentially the same. Naturally, intention matters – it matters a great deal – but is that going to be remembered years later when you fall into patterns of behaviour learned so early on?
What makes it more complicated is that there are of course times when we have to overrule our children. My daughter would in no way sign up to being stabbed in the arm twice and made to feel unwell afterwards; she will still have her second MMR jab. Given complete bodily autonomy, she would refuse to be strapped into a car seat. There are times when she’s so wound up in a tantrum that although she’s pushing me away I can practically feel her need for a cuddle from across the room. My gut says that precisely because there are times when I have to just ask her to trust me and surrender to my better judgement, I owe her more thoughtfulness in how I approach her in other interactions on a daily basis.
Physical contact with small children – from skin-on-skin cuddles and feeding infants to playful wrestling with older kids – is so important. And the opportunities to hand the control over to them and help them understand their own personal space and bodily autonomy are limitless. There are of course many, many times when I will forget this entirely, and impulsively drop a kiss on her head just because, or sweep her onto my lap for a cuddle. If she’s decided that’s crossing the line, she’ll “throw the kiss away” – a very quick and pointed reminder to me that just because I don’t have to ask most of the time it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t ask and, crucially, respect the answer. I don’t pout and sulk if she refuses a kiss or cuddle, even if I want to – I just say “okay, you don’t have to” (in fact, then I usually get one). I also apologise if I’ve invaded her personal space without thinking; I could write a lengthy separate piece on the importance of parents admitting their errors.
Most of all, I keep promises. I told her I go in and check on her when she’s asleep. She informed me that was fine and I could adjust her covers and stroke her hair, but I was not to kiss her while she was sleeping. A friend laughed, saying “but I bet you do anyway, right?”. But no, I really don’t. I know she’ll never know, but I would, and I need to be able to look my kid in the eye and tell her to trust me because she really, really can.
I don’t suggest for a minute turning every interaction with a small child into a lengthy discourse on permission and consent, because that’s simply not how human relationships work; instead what I’m trying to do is just pay more attention to respecting her as an individual. I do think of my daughter very much as ‘mine’ – an extension of me and all the hopes, dreams and love I’ve poured into her. I couldn’t conceive of her being any other way, but I do need to remember that there is a point where I end and she begins, and her body is a pretty clear marker of that.
The hardest part for me is explaining this to other people without them getting defensive and assuming I meant that they were trying to do something wrong. I’m always extremely grateful to people who get the point that it’s about the child, and not them. We talk so much about boundaries – and testing them – when it comes to children, but need to include in that a sense of how they set their own. How many of us struggle to say no to things, or spend time in the company of people we really don’t want to “just to be polite”? I think it happens to all sexes, but I think girls are particularly socialised to fall prey to it. Wouldn’t it be a fabulous gift to give our children to encourage them to be able to take the positive steps for themselves from childhood that we struggle to manage as adults?
I’m quite a strict mum in some ways, very relaxed in others. The one thing I won’t compromise on, however, is respectful behaviour. And the one prerequisite for understanding both the value of your own consent and the importance of someone else’s is respect. We teach sharing, giving, thoughtfulness and empathy. Let’s not forget to teach that it’s okay to say no, too.