Understanding the importance of giving, withholding, and respecting consent starts in childhood.
My son wriggles and squeals, and as soon as I lift my fingers from his ribs, he takes a few deep breaths and pants, “Why’d you stop?”
“Because you asked me to,” I tell him. “Stop means stop. No means no. Even when you think you’re having fun.”
We’ve been over that a thousand times, and I’m sure we’ll go over it a few thousand more before he’s old enough to hear my words in a different context. Stop means stop. No means no.
“Tickle me again!”
I acquiesce and pretty soon he’s laughing so hard he can’t speak. I stop. And just like we’ve repeated another hundred times, he asks why. “Because it seemed like you might have needed a break.”
We wait until he can breathe easily again, and the tickle fight resumes.
I am working against a pattern set by my parents. My parents would tickle, poke, pinch, and aggravate me until they were finished, not until I had enough. I learned quickly that no was a word for authority figures, not for me. When my parents said no, it was final. When I said no, I might as well have said nothing, unless I said it too loudly.
My mother used to spend our rush-hour commute picking at me to stave off her own boredom. I would beg her to stop touching me, popping open my barrettes, tugging my hair, tickling, and whatever else she was doing, and she would laugh and continue until I lost my pre-adolescent temper and swatted at her hands, or screamed for her to leave me alone. Then, she would punish me.
I would get the lecture on how children should speak to their parents, and the impropriety of my tone, and frequently some sort of physical back-up to remind me never to swat her hands away. And, I would cry in frustration, unable to defend myself, explain myself, or stop her from starting the whole thing over again.
My job was to take what she felt like dishing out, and to take it with the humor she said it was intended.
If she had realized that she was grooming me for abuse, I am confident our car rides would have gone differently. As it was, my parents taught me that my no meant nothing, and I spent my teen and early adult years trying to understand why I kept finding myself in situations I couldn’t get out of, and finding myself in platonic, romantic, and working relationships where I was constantly subjugating my desires and needs to more dominant personalities, and authority figures.
I was closing in on thirty before I learned to say no. I was closing in on forty before I learned to say no without feeling guilt.
My son was born halfway to the no-guilt-no, and I decided early on that I wanted his experience to be different from mine. I wanted him to grow up feeling comfortable asserting his boundaries. He was going to be an only child, like me, and without the benefit of siblings with whom to learn the art of the argument, I needed to find ways to make him feel like his voice was heard.
That’s hard to do with a small child, since nearly everything a toddler wants is likely to kill him, and a defiant “No!” can be a problem if you’re trying to get your two-year-old out of the middle of the street.
I decided that with my small child, I could let him say no, and at least reflect to him that I heard the no. So, as I was carrying an angry child into the house, I was saying, “I hear you. I understand this is not what you want, but I also don’t want you to get squished by a car,” rather than just yelling “No!” back at him.
Since I’m not perfect, I did not always manage to execute my plan so well, but I kept after it.
I’ve done my best to model how I want my son to talk to me. I’ve done my best to model how I want him to express himself to me. I tell him that he is always free to express his anger, his frustration, his sadness, or his disappointment in me, but he must do it with respect. And, when I mess it up and I express my anger, frustration, or disappointment disrespectfully, I apologize.
I hope this means that I am training my son to assert his needs. I hope this means he grows up feeling comfortable telling someone no, and disengaging if that friend, partner, coworker, or authority figure tries to force him into a situation he knows is wrong.
I also hope my modeling means that when someone tells him no, he stops. When he is on that date, and things are going faster than his partner’s comfort level, when that girl (or boy) says no, or stop, I hope the reflex built into his brain is to sit back and let that other person catch her (or his) breath.
It’s going to take a lot more than modeling consent in tickle fights, and in disagreements to raise my son to be the kind of man I hope he’ll be. It’s going to take hard, honest conversations about tricky, confusing situations. It’s going to take a balance of vigilance and trust on my part. It’s going to take living life, and gaining experience on his.
At least we’ve made a start. He knows that I hear his voice. He knows that his voice matters. He knows that stop means stop, and no means no, and that sometimes, someone just needs to catch his breath before he can decide whether he’d like to keep going—and it is okay if he wants to stop.
Here’s hoping I’m doing something right.
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Photo: Flickr/Gabriela Pinto