We managed to hibernate the first few months of my son's life; he was born in mid-December, and the cold sleepy days kept us insulated from the outside world for the most part until spring arrived. We hosted a big joint birthday party for my husband and a couple of friends that May when my son was about five months old, and I was rudely jarred into awareness of how little respect babies receive from most people. "Oh I'm going to need to get a piece of that!" one girl in her mid twenties squealed. "He's so cute, I have to get in on that and love on him!" another exclaimed. Others presumed to try to take him out of my arms without asking, or pick him up from where he was playing on the floor. All I could think was, what if someone was saying these things about my pretty friend? Would these girls think it was okay to talk about touching her without her consent or interest like that? Hopefully not, so why did they think it was okay to talk about and approach my son like an object that existed for their entertainment and pleasure?
Since my son was a newborn, I have tried to treat him with respect. From the very first few weeks of his life I would tell him when we were going to change his diaper, pick him up, change his clothes, or go somewhere. I would tell him in a regular voice, in as much detail as it felt like made sense, and I would narrate what was happening to him when needed, like at a doctor's visit.
Even my own mother didn't presume to hold him until he was three days old, because she knew he was new to the world, and getting to know his dad and I, and that we would let her know when he was ready to expand his circle of trust and awareness to his loving Grandma. I realized all too quickly once the weather warmed up and we started going on more outings that not everyone treated babies like people, let alone with respect. We learned we had to be very clear with people that they were not going to get to hold my son unless he indicated he wanted them to, which by five months he was doing very clearly with an exaggerated lunge out of our arms at other people.
Now at 15 months, teaching my son about body autonomy and consent obviously looks different from how it looked when he was an infant. Here are some main ways this is happening right now:
First and foremost, we listen to his "no." He doesn't actually say the word no yet, but he has a very clear hand signal he uses to express it, and unless it's really important, we respect the no and give choices as needed. If I give him a kiss and he says no, kisses stop. If my mom asks him if she can pick him up and he says no, she leaves him be. If I ask if I can change his diaper and he says no, unless we are really pressed for time I leave the diaper somewhere he can grab it and I tell him he can bring it to me when he's ready; it might be hard to believe, but it usually happens within ten minutes or so. Learning that his no has real power is my number one priority in teaching my kiddo about consent.
I set boundaries about my own body. If he hits me, I let him know that I can't let him hit, and I will have to move away from him if he keeps hitting. If he keeps hitting I essentially put myself in time out, letting him know that it seems like he is having a hard time not hitting, so I am going to help him by giving him some space. A recent victory in the body autonomy department was that for months my son would ask to nurse by pulling my shirt down. I have been calmly repeating to him when he does this "ask milk please." After all those months of consistent reinforcement, he just started to point to my chest and say "pleafth" when he wants to nurse. Learning that other people can say no too, and that other people need to have their bodies respected is number two on my list for teaching consent at this age.
If strangers try to touch him in public, I shut that sh*t down. A swift "please don't touch" and putting my arm between my son and the toucher seems to work. I want my son to know that no stranger has the right to touch him, ever, and I will make sure of that. In the case of people like doctors, I explain to my son for a few days in advance what will happen at the visit, and then at the visit, before the doctor touches him, I tell him "This is Dr. Larabee, he is our friend and he is here to make sure you are healthy. He needs to check your body to help me and Daddy keep you safe." and I narrate what the doctor is doing the whole time.
I use the correct words for body parts. This will be a bigger deal as his language starts to develop, but being able to talk about their bodies accurately is an important way not only to give kids a healthy relationship with their bodies, but to protect them from abuse, and should start before your child can even talk.
How we teach about consent and body autonomy will continue to change as my son grows. Making this a priority will both help keep him safe, and help him grow up into a man who respects limits and understands consent, which is one of the better contributions to the world I feel like I can make as a mother. Do you teach your kids consent? What does that look like at their age? If you have older kids, what impacts of those lessons are you seeing in them? I would love to hear from you.