Hugs. Oh the hugs.
With my first pregnancy I had expected to set boundaries around hugs. Family and friends would ask and offer, not demand, hugs. My kids would learn to ask for consent. I would model how to ask and how to accept a no.
Turns out I am less confident and assertive than expected when it comes to asking my family to gain consent and not assume hugs are given. But I am getting better at it.
The everyday consent lessons I didn’t know to prepare for, but I have found them to be meaningful.
Just a few examples…
Today while holding and talking to Brie, my 20 month old, I was delighting in how much they express themself through words, phrases, gestures, and facial expressions. On an impulse I came closer and kissed their forehead. A typical thing for a parent to do.
But my child pushed my face, shook their head, and said “no kisses.”
Moments like these are a great opportunity for parents.
We can teach body autonomy, that only they get to decide what to do with and what happens to their body. We can teach that setting boundaries is normal and healthy, and shouldn’t have negative consequences. We can model appropriate responses when they set a boundary….
And how they should respond when others set a boundary with them.
So what did I do? I said “Oh I’m sorry. No kisses.” And I reminded myself to ask for consent next time.
What? you may be thinking. Ask a toddler before kissing their forehead? Isn’t that weird, awkward, unnecessarily restrained? Can’t a parent just show affection?
Give it a whirl.
I can tell you that after I ask Avery, my preschool aged kid, if I can kiss their forehead, it gives me joy when I see them pause, think, and decide yes or no. It gives me joy they are taking ownership of their body, they are tuning in to what they want, they are asserting their boundaries.
And it has zero effect on the affection between us, on our bond, on the fun we have – as it should be.
My lesson: a reminder that promoting consent culture starts with babies.
Rewind the scene a few weeks and you’ll find Avery enjoying all sorts of imaginary play. They go on adventures to a savanna, breastfeed a baby doll, are a spider monkey jumping around, leap around a room to avoid lava, and more, including my least favorite…..pretend they are a puppy.
Why my least favorite? Because when Avery is a puppy, they like to rain my face with rapid-fire licks. It’s gross.
At first I just dealt with it. As soon as they started crawling around and barking, my body would tense. They’d excitedly crawl over, tail wagging, and I’d brace. They’d climb on me and I’d wince: eyes closed tight, shoulders to my ears.
After a few episodes, I’d had enough.
I realized I was teaching them it is ok for someone to do something with our bodies that we don’t like.
I needed to take this opportunity to affirm the value and need for consent.
I set a boundary by simply saying “I don’t like my face to be licked. I don’t want any more licks on my face.”
With some hurt in their voice they said “But puppies like to lick.”
“I know, but I don’t like to be licked on my face. For now on I want you to ask me first, before any licking”
They asked. I said it was ok to lick three times “right here,” pointing at a spot on my arm. They did and we moved on.
They’ve mostly moved on to other games but this lesson isn’t over. It is clear they need more help understanding that often a person says no with their body, not with words.
If you head upstairs you’ll find my kids’ future bedroom but for now the play area/my office/home gym. By home gym I mean a punching bag. Kind of random I know, but in a two bedroom house, you squeeze things in and make it work.
This punching bag is an unintended toy for the kids. They kick it, punch it, and there is a bar where Avery does their “hanging exercises.” This is all great. The problem is that Avery started insisting that I hold out my arm so they could do hanging exercises on me. I tried but it causes a good amount of back pain.
I started a problem. I would say no but then keep trying, even though it was hurting me. It got to where I would say no and mean it, but they’d ignore me and keep jumping, trying to hang on me.
I was teaching them it was ok to ignore a boundary. I was teaching them it was ok to hurt people.
Well this had to stop.
I had to get down eye-to-eye and speak calmly but assertively to them. I said “Don’t hang on my arm. It hurts my back.” When they attempted to ignore me I insisted. “I said no. It is not ok to do things that hurt me.”
This is one example of a larger issue. I have back problems but also a disability that causes leg pain. It’s been a process of teaching Avery how to climb on me, how to play on me in a way that isn’t painful. They’re learning to adjust between me and their dad, that we have different capabilities, different needs in pain avoidance.
Turns out building consent culture is found in the details of our everyday lives. It is not a singular lesson. It is not something that applies to only specific scenarios.
As we continue through the season of December family gatherings, I prepare for the hug issue. I plan on modelling. By creating lots of opportunities for family to witness me asking for consent and gracefully accepting a no, I hope they take something in.