Consent, Part 3: Applying the Abstract
As I said before, the right to consent is a fundamental human right. Once you understand what consent really means, applying it to daily life gets easier. So let's apply it.
Case Study #1:
Brian is 3-year-old autistic boy. He has a habit of touching other people's faces to show affection. His parents rarely redirect him because it triggers a meltdown. His cousin, Emily, is a 4-year-old neurotypical girl. She is at his house for a visit. Brian touches Emily's face and she pushes him away and he falls. Who should the adults redirect, and how?
Brian is a boy who hasn't been taught consent. Ideally, his parents would be redirecting him daily and teaching him to ask before touching people. And, ideally, the adults would be aware of the likelihood that he'd touch Emily without asking first and would prevent it from happening at all by removing him from her space before any contact is made. But clearly, that hasn't happened in this case. So Brian needs to be redirected. And the conversation about consent needs to be repeated often and boundaries need to be established consistently until he's able to manage it himself.
But what about Emily?
Leave her alone. She has a right to defend herself from unwanted touch. Pushing someone away is not an excessive response. And even if it was a bit excessive, teaching her that she needs to consider others feeling while protecting her own boundaries is toxic beyond belief.
But what if Brian has a meltdown?
Ummm, so what? The alternative is a kid who doesn't respect other people's boundaries. That's a recipe for jail time. If a meltdown happens, so be it. Support his feelings, acknowledge his sadness, but keep the boundary. You may literally save his life.
Case Study #2
Jonathan, a 7-year-old boy, starts to cry and scream in the school cafeteria because he wants to sit next to Ethan, another boy in his class. Ethan wants to sit near 2 other children instead. What should staff do?
Again, this is about consent. As sad as Jonathan may be, it's important that he learn that he can't control the actions and choices of other people. Supporting the feelings of sadness, but allowing Ethan to make his own choice is the right move.
But shouldn't we teach the kids to be nice to each other?
No! We all have the right to choose our own friends. That's an element of autonomy that should not be violated. As long as there's nothing abusive happening, it's not wrong to choose to spend time with other people. And what's the alternative? Make Ethan sit with someone he doesn't like? How is that going to create a harmonious relationship? In fact, it would probably guarantee that Ethan won't ever want to sit with Jonathan again. And that's not helpful.
Case Study #3:
Your 8-year-old son, Jacob, becomes tearful every time Uncle Kevin visits. His uncle often teases as a way of joking and showing affection, but Jacob dislikes it and asks him to stop. Uncle Kevin always responds by telling him "you have no sense of humor." How do you intervene?
This is a grown-up problem. As a parent and the protector of this child, it's your job to put a stop to the teasing. Joking is only funny if the person receiving the joke thinks it's funny. This, too, is an issue of consent. Jacob hasn't consented to be teased. Period.
But doesn't he need to learn to tolerate other people's joking?
Absolutely not. This is the same argument that sexual harassers use to justify their behavior. Gross.
But what do I do if Kevin won't stop?
Then he doesn't visit. I know that's hard, and easier said than done. But you owe your child your loyalty. And Kevin clearly needs to learn something about consent.
I know this is hard, and it may be a pivot away from the parenting you've been doing so far. But it's important for our children to understand consent and be able to act when they need to. In a world where things like domestic violence dominate the headlines, we need to teach our kids to respect their own boundaries. Because if they don't, who will?