A few weeks ago I was reading through a Twitter storm that had seemed to add on to an original debate by Deanne Carson 2018 who advised that parents should introduce the idea of consent early in childhood.
I didn’t see too much of a problem with this if I’m honest. Whilst I appreciate the inclination to read it flippantly (my Toddler would never have his bum changed if I relied on a vehement acceptance of my request to proceed), I instinctively understood this idea of ‘consent’. For me, it was about ‘awareness’. I have always given signals to my boy about when I was going to bathe him and change him. I love to cuddle him and tickle him to giggling, but I do ask rather than just pounce for kisses. Touch is such an important and integral part of Mommy-baby bond but should we always take for granted that our child is obligated to receive it just because we like to stroke their skin…? It’s a dodgy one to negotiate.
The Fiancé wasn’t so sure about the ‘expert advice’ around contact. Until yesterday when he watched my face storm as a waitress tickled The Toddler whilst we waited for our meal.
The waitress had approached the table to ask if we were ready for the main course. The Toddler was day in his high chair and she was behind him. Without any verbal signal to him, greeting or care for my consent – she proceeded to tickle the back of his neck. Initially The Toddler laughed. He thought it was me. When she repeated the action and he turned to see that there was a stranger standing beside him, he signalled his ‘shy’ face and moved away from her. She went to do it again. But this time asked if he liked to be tickled. I said ‘no’ in what I gather was a very stern voice based upon her hasty retreat. And the Fiancé’s chuckle: “your face!” He said.
My face is right! How bloody dare she! My blood boiled as soon as she first laid a finger on The Toddler. I don’t know whether it was shock or an innate sense of social decorum that prevented me from rudely demanding that she not touch my child, but I was slow to react initially. And then I was annoyed at myself.
Why hadn’t I declared quicker that her actions were out of order? Would they even be deemed out of order?
Since having a child I’ve become aware of how liberal people’s attitudes are toward the judgement of a child’s aesthetics, behaviours, parentage: people have stuck their faces in the pram, fingers under chins, judgemental eyes toward me on almost a weekly occurrence. I’ve always quickly manipulated The Toddler out of the way of contact. I’ve ended conversations abruptly. I’ve refused to hand him over for ‘snuggles’ to people I don’t like. I’ve never felt that I was wrong to do so.
Why is it that people ignore the unspoken societal contract about touch toward a child? I’m sure that the waitress wouldn’t have stood and tickled my fiancé without permission from me. Or from him for that matter. So why do so to my child? His wishes shouldn’t matter less because he cannot explicitly verbalise that he doesn’t want to be touched, albeit in a friendly manner, by a stranger. I may be considered ridiculous – she just tickled him. He laughed. I’m putting my own control and insecurities on to my child. But I watched him react negatively upon identifying who was tickling. I watched him feel confused. And I don’t think that’s right. He doesn’t understand societal boundaries around personal space and contact or consent yet. Imagine if Mommy tried to teach him about ‘stranger danger’ in a year or so but allowed a random person to tickle him every so often in a restaurant or supermarket? He wouldn’t have a clue about a consistent message.
And so whilst he cannot verbalise it, I must. Because he does not need to grow up thinking that he has no personal space or autonomy about his body and boundaries around contact. He does not need to think that a stranger can tickle, hug, kiss him against his will. He doesn’t need to be forced to give out kisses and cuddles as standard goodbyes – he may well meet another little person (or big one for that matter) that doesn’t like their physical space absorbed – but can choose to dole out physical affection on his own terms. He’s quite sure already when he’d rather have a fruit winder than a kiss from me in the morning! So why shouldn’t he choose who else bestows physical attention upon him?
The ‘consent’ argument is likely to divide opinion. That’s fine. I’m not sure the lines in my own house will be clearly drawn when there are sibling relationships and a very cuddly daddy… but in a society where malicious acts against children are ever increasing, it makes sense to me that my child is aware that there are no blurred lines: physical attention doesn’t have to be received if it isn’t welcome nor should it be given just because it’s considered ‘polite’.
So next time a tickly stranger approaches, I will make sure it’s more than just “your face” that makes my feelings clear. Not to be rude, just to save someone else from being.