The Language of Consent: Are You Speaking It?
I’m going to assume you’re on board with a few things:
1- Children have a right to bodily autonomy. That means children are the boss of their own bodies.
2- Children have a right to say no to any physical touch at any time, and this right should be protected by parents.
3- Children have a right to decide what their body looks like – what they wear, how they choose to have their hair, etc.
If you’re not cool with these things, then here are some really awesome posts you need to read, like yesterday.
Five Ways To Honour Your Child’s Body Autonomy
Ok, now we’re all on the same page… we know that children have these rights. We know this is best for them. Of course they shouldn’t learn that another person has more power over their body than them. How dangerous is that?
And yet, if you are around children and their caregivers for any period of time (whether that be parents, teachers, relatives), and you listen to the language that most people use with children, you will hear that a lot of our words do not convey consent at all.
Sure, we agree with the big things. We recognise that Great Aunt Ethel forcefully planting a sloppy unwelcome kiss on a cringing child’s cheek is a no-no. We step in and say ‘ahh no thank you, he/she is not comfortable with that’. We have conquered that area! But what about the subtle messages we are sending with our words?
The way children are spoken to often consists of a series of orders…
“Come over here”
“Put that down”
“Look at this”
“Eat your food”
“Don’t do that”
We wouldn’t dare speak to an adult like that, dropping the niceties and reducing the conversation to mere demands instead of communication and requests. So why do we do it to children?
If we want our children to know that they are truly in charge of their bodies, then we need to act like it. And not just about the big stuff. We need to speak to them as if they have the right to make decisions about their own bodies/minds/life. We need to convey that they are consenting participants in this relationship. Demands don’t do that.
Swap forceful/demanding/coercive/threatening language, for phrases that convey consent…
10 Phrases that Convey Consent
“Would you like to…?”
“Do you mind if I…?”
“Can I help you with…?”
“Are you comfortable with that?”
“Your body, your choice”
“Is this still ok with you?”
“It’s up to you”
“I’d really like to… would you be able to…?”
“You can say ‘no'”
“You’re the boss of your body”
Body Language and Consent
Our body language can also convey our children’s right to consent. We don’t touch or do things to a child without asking, i.e. picking up, wiping noses, putting on clothes, changing nappies, etc. Yes, even young children who are not yet verbal. We are still able to communicate what is happening, move slowly, wait until they are ready, use gentle hands. We can stop when they give us signs that they are not comfortable with what we are doing, wait until they are ready. Lack of verbal skills does not mean lack of humanity and rights. All children can communicate, we just have to listen and observe.
Children have big emotions. Often over things that adults deem insignificant. Because of this, we are frequently dismissive of how they feel. In our mind, they are overreacting.
As well as feeling that they are in charge of their own bodies, we need children to know that their feelings and intuition are valid and important to listen to. This helps keep them safe. We don’t want children to feel ashamed or embarrassed about how they feel, or that they need to hide their feelings for the comfort of others. Acceptance of our children’s feeling is so important. They need to know that if they don’t feel comfortable in a situation, for any reason, then they should trust that feeling.
Accepting ‘no’, without guilt
A very important part of consent is the ability to say ‘no’. But so often children do not have their ‘no’ respected. Whether they don’t feel like getting dressed, going to the park with friends today, eating the dinner you prepared for them, or going to bed on your schedule, their ‘no’ is seen as insignificant. A parent is presumed to have the right to organise their child’s life. Though things like sleep and eating are clearly related to bodily autonomy, most people don’t extend children’s rights to these areas.
“Much of the control exerted on children is done in the name of caregiving. We control because we know that children’s well-being is our responsibility and we have accepted without question that control is an integral part of fulfilling this responsibility. Let’s begin to question that assumption.” –Teresa Graham Brett
When children tell us ‘no’, much of the time they are either forced to do things anyway, coerced, or shamed. When we guilt or shame children for their opinions and choices in other areas, when we exert power of them instead of cooperating, how can we then expect them to feel they are in control of their own bodies?
When children say ‘no’, it can not be met with guilt or force. We need them to know that their ‘no’ matters. Always.
What do you do instead? This post might help.
What about when you HAVE to override autonomy?
These instances are honestly rare. Rarer than mainstream culture would have you believe. We are told that it’s our job to get our children to do what we want them to do, and that they naturally resist us so that force and punishment are necessary. Not true.
Connected parents who are not controlling are likely to have children that are willing to cooperate and want to find solutions that everyone is happy with.
“The reality that adults have more power than children…does not mean that it is appropriate or necessary for us to exercise control over them. Rather, it means that we have an obligation to consciously choose how to use our power. We can choose to use our greater power to control children and coerce them to do what we want. We can choose to do nothing with our power. But we can also choose to use our power to support, assist, and facilitate the growth and learning of children in ways that affirm their personal power, dignity, and humanity.” –Teresa Graham Brett
When our needs are not in alignment with our children, we can choose to simply communicate with them, rather than exert our power over them.
“It seems like we both want different things.”
“I’d really like to work this out.”
“I’d like to hear what you have to say.”
“I’m feeling worried about…would you be able to…?”
“I can’t let you… I need to keep you safe. Is there something else we can do?/ Is there a way I can help?”
“How can I make this easier for you?”
People will try to tell you that you shouldn’t phrase things as questions to children when they are clearly things that they have to do. Why not? Why are we so afraid of children believing they have a say in the decisions of their life? Would you ever use this kind of thinking in another relationship? If there was something that you expected your partner to do, wouldn’t you still ask instead of demand? I mean, it’s just common courtesy. Is it any wonder that so many complain about children being demanding when we have taught them that is an appropriate way to communicate?
Choosing kindness, manners, courtesy, connection, and respect is not only more pleasant, but it achieves your goals anyway. Children learn what they live, they will grow to treat you the same way. They will be more willing to cooperate because they know you are reasonable and open to listening to their point of view.
Consent is such an important concept to teach our children and we have such an opportunity in everyday life to respect their rights and autonomy, ensuring they will always know ‘my body, my choice’.
Are you speaking the language of consent?
Yes! A million times yes. I had recently slipped back into the ‘sit down’, ‘put your shoes on’ kind of rubbish. Thank you for this very timely reminder! Absolutely love your blog <3
Ah the focus of one child..try it with many.
The dominant personality will manipulate the rest creating dysfunctional power relationships.
Understanding your child but giving them full control of options means we won’t try and end up with yet more failures to launch and learn
I have 4 children.
So what am I supposed to do when my 3 year-old won’t get dressed, won’t brush her teeth, won’t get in the car to go to school….and I have to get to work on time?
This blogger lives in merryland. I’m currently going through a period with my toddler in which she doesn’t let me change her nappy. At all. Sooo… according to this and other posts, I should happily let her roam around with a soiled nappy, even though I know it will cause her a nasty rash that will leave her sore for days??! Only because she hasn’t given me her consent?! And please, don’t try to tell me that I have to explain it to her why she has to change her nappy, because I already do that. I also don’t invalidate her feelings. But at the end of the day kids DO need boundaries, and I have to change that nappy because I know better than her. Most of the advice I read here is good for older children, but please, don’t tell me toddlers will see the light if we let them do and have everything they want only because their feelings come first, because I’ll call you on your BS! Sure, let’s let them hit that other child because they want their toy, or sure, let’s give them only candy for dinner because they don’t want to eat their healthy meal, and they are screaming their brains out for the cookie jar inside the cupboard. Seriously…
Sara, I would really value your thoughts on the above comment and the topic of toddlers/pre-verbal children in general. I’m also struggling to apply some of this to my 16 month old who has a hard time with getting dressed/having her nappy changed. I work 3 days a week and on those days I can’t always wait until she’s ready to do these things because I would risk losing my job if I were chronically late. What are your recommendations?
I’d love more in general on how to apply some of your wonderful philosophy to younger children. How did this work when your children were very young? I am finding the following hard:
how to say no to certain things/setting boundaries respectfully (e.g. when she bites/hits me – and other children – in either play/frustration which happens a lot).
I’d also love to hear your thoughts on how to negotiate and be respectful to a child who cannot express themselves with words. I’m finding it really tough and would so value your insight.
Angharad, I know your comment is a few months old now, but I wanted to recommend this book to you and anyone else with similar questions. It has LOADS of practical examples with the kinds of things you could say and do. I think it’s mostly in line with consent-based parenting ideas, and lots of it can also be applied to very little children. It has definitely helped me. And I’m a massive fan of sara@happinessishere!
How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7 https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/184812614X/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_WWTzBb354E374
Thank you so much for your reply. I’ve heard of this book before but I think I’ll buy it now after your recommendation. I’ve continued to find that a lot of respectful parenting blogs focus on older kids (which I’m sure will be a brilliant resource when we reach that stage!) and don’t necessarily have guidance for navigating the super littles. My daughter is two now and very verbal which happily has opened up so much in terms of two-way communication. Thanks again xx
Hi Angharad, You’re welcome! xx