How to teach—and model—consent to your kids

The key is listening to their feelings.

How to teach—and model—consent to your kids

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.'

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This is how we’re defining success this school year

Hint: It's not related to grades.

In the ever-moving lives of parents and children, opportunities to slow down and reflect on priorities can be hard to come by. But a new school year scheduled to begin in the midst of a global pandemic offers the chance to reflect on how we should all think about measures of success. For both parents and kids, that may mean putting a fresh emphasis on optimism, creativity and curiosity.

Throughout recent decades, "school success" became entangled with "academic achievement," with cases of anxiety among school children dramatically increasing in the past few generations. Then, almost overnight, the American school system was turned on its head in the spring of 2020. As we look ahead to a new school year that will look like no year past, more is being asked of teachers, students and parents, such as acclimating to distance learning, collaborating with peers from afar and aiming to maintain consistency with schooling amidst general instability due to COVID.

Despite the inherent challenges, there is also an overdue opportunity to redefine success during the school year by finding fresh ways to keep students and their parents involved in the learning process.

"I always encourage my son to try at least one difficult thing every school year," says Arushi Garg, parenting blogger and mom of a 4-year-old. "This challenges him but also allows me to remind him to be optimistic! Lots of things in life are hard, and it's important we learn to be positive during difficult times. Fostering a sense of optimism allows kids to push beyond what they thought possible, like biking without training wheels or reading above their grade level."

Here are a few mantras to keep in mind this school year:

Quality learning matters more than quantifying learning

After focusing on standardized measures of academic success for so long, the learning environment this next school year may involve more independent, remote learning. Some parents are considering this an exciting opportunity for their children to assume a bigger role in what they are learning—and parents are also getting on board by supporting their children's education with engaging, positive learning materials like Highlights Magazine.

As a working mom, Garg also appreciates that Highlights Magazine can help engage her son while she's also working. She says, "He sits next to me and solves puzzles in the magazine or practices his writing from the workbook."

Keep an open mind as "school" looks different

Whether children are of preschool age or in the midst of high school, "going to school" is bound to look different this year. Naturally, this may require some adjustment as kids become accustomed to new guidelines. Although many parents may wish to shelter our kids from challenges, others believe optimism can be fostered through adversity when everyone is committed to adapting to new experiences.

"Honestly, I am yet to figure out when I will be comfortable sending [my son] back [to school]," says Garg. In the meantime, she's helping her son remain connected with friends who also read Highlights Magazine by encouraging the kids to talk about what they are learning on video calls.

Follow children's cues about what interests them

For Garg, her biggest hope for this school year is that her son will create "success" for himself by embracing new learning possibilities with positivity.

"Encouraging my son to try new things has given him a chance to prove that he can do anything," she says. "He takes his previous success as an example now and feels he can fail multiple times before he succeeds."

There's no denying that this school year will be far from the norm. But, perhaps, we can create a new, better way of defining our children's success in school because of it.

This article was sponsored by Highlights. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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