Sex education expert Deanna Carson recently ignited a debate about consent and children. Carson recommends that we should gain consent from even very young babies before daily tasks, such as changing their diaper or putting them in the bath.
The idea of waiting for a 'yes' from a crying baby, or an uncooperative toddler may seem ridiculous or a recipe for permissive parenting. We've probably all had moments where we've put our tantruming child into a car seat, despite their stubborn refusals. But there is another way—and it actually makes parenting easier.
The key is listening to their feelings.
With a newborn, the idea of what constitutes a 'yes' or a 'no' can seem a little vague. Carson recommends that we tell our baby what we are going to do, make eye contact and then allow space to 'listen' to their response—perhaps a change in body language that lets us know they are okay with what is going on.
As a Hand in Hand Parenting instructor, there's one important aspect of gaining consent that I always teach to parents: the dual role of crying. If a baby is crying when you are about to change their diaper, then it could be that they are upset about the sensation of a dirty diaper and that it something that needs to be fixed right away. The same would obviously be the case if they were too cold or hungry.
However, babies often cry about new experiences, such as going into a bath, car seat or having a first tooth cleaned. These experiences that seem so everyday for us are so new for our babies and can trigger strong emotions. In this case, it's best to wait until they stop crying before performing the task—an important way you can respect your baby's body autonomy and allow them to properly consent to what's going on.
How to 'ask' for consent with your baby
Take bathtime, for example. You can lovingly hold your baby, show them the bath, and tell them that it's time to go in. However, instead of putting them in quickly, you can move them slowly towards the water to check they are okay with it. If they start to cry, then you can stop where you are, hold them and stay in the moment and listen to their feelings. This is the Hand in Hand Parenting tool of Staylistening.
You can then try again, when they have stopped crying.
The process of waiting until a baby is ready may take some time, but it's a positive investment in time. If we work through a baby's feelings about a bath on one occasion, it's likely that the next time it's bath time, those feelings will no longer be there. They'll be more likely to be happy and relaxed about taking a bath, and this positive association will last them all the way through babyhood and beyond. That means that in the long run, staylistening to your child's feelings actually saves you time!
How to 'ask' for consent with your toddler
When it comes to toddlers, things can be a bit more challenging. A toddler's refusal to do something as simple as get dressed, or leave the house, can try our patience. However, the same principles apply as with a baby. If we want to gain their consent, we need to listen to their feelings.
If a toddler throws a tantrum when we ask them to do something, we can empathize and offer hugs until they are ready to stop. When they finish crying and are no longer upset, they will most likely be able to listen to our reasonable request to put their clothes on.
Hand in Hand Parenting is based on a simple rule about children's behavior—that connection breeds cooperation. When we listen to our child's feelings, we give them the connection they need. When children feel well-connected to us, they can think better and see that our requests are reasonable. Then (most of the time!) they will happily consent.
What's really happening for kids
In terms of what's happening in the brain, when a child is upset, the energy in the brain is concentrated in the limbic system. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain, responsible for rational thinking, can't function well. This means that your toddler can't focus on your reasonable requests to put their shoes on when they go outside, or getting into their pyjamas because they are preoccupied with their emotional state. After listening, cooperation naturally follows.
A toddler's refusal to cooperate doesn't always show as a tantrum. It might just come as a loud 'no,' the stomping of feet, or just the inability to listen to what you are saying.
Play and laughter are other ways that children naturally release feelings that can cloud their thinking. So it might be that gaining consent means having a playful chase game before bath time and letting your child giggle. Or, putting clothes on the wrong body parts when it's time to get dressed, and then acting all confused by your 'mistake.'
Children gather hurt and upset feelings from times when they have felt powerless. They may use a 'no' as a way to regain power, even if that 'no' is about something that is really no big deal. We might circumvent the no by allowing our child to sleep in their clothes one night or go out barefoot, but it often serves them better to try and gain their consent. When we notice those little moments, in which they have big feelings, we can help them to release them, and lighten the load of their emotional backpack.
Power reversal games that get children laughing are a great way to do this. When your child gets to be the powerful one, and you are the bumbling adult making mistakes, they get to laugh and build their confidence.
When your child feels more powerful, they are less likely to need that big 'no!' to feel powerful. Instead, they are able to be flexible and say 'yes' in everyday situations.
With this approach to limits you never actually have to force your child to do anything. You set a limit and then listen to feelings. You play, you invest time in building connection and cooperation. And then the next time you ask them to do something, they might actually say 'yes.'