Consent and conversations with young children (or why I ask permission for cuddles at night)

The other day I ended up staying late at work and heading out for dinner with some colleagues (friends, really and all, for what it’s worth, currently child free). While we were waiting for food I got a text from my husband about how our daughter’s bedtime had gone, and it listed the number of cuddles and kisses I could give her when I got home.

I got some baffled looks at this, so I tried to explain. My daughter knows that the last thing I will do every night before I go to bed will be to stick my head around her door and check in on her. My commute is around an hour and a half long, so I inevitably miss a fair number of bedtimes, and therefore bedtime cuddles. She doesn’t want to miss out on these altogether, but also knows she’ll be asleep when I get in. So she gives me a certain number of cuddles and kisses I can deliver when I arrive. It’s usually hilariously specific yet not – “ten or eleven kisses, and two or three hugs” – and sometimes she’ll be super prescriptive about exact kiss placement on her face, and sometimes not. And I only ever carry out exactly what she says, though I’ll admit if she gives me a choice of numbers of kisses I’ll invariably go for the maximum.

I basically got a ‘but why?’ to all this, and I tried to elaborate. The main message I’m trying to get across to the kid is that her body is her own (as I’ve written about before) and that doesn’t change when she’s asleep. We’ve talked about respecting each other’s boundaries a lot during wakefulness – one of her favourite games is the ‘Stop Go Tickle Game’, where she gets to dictate exactly how much I tickle her tummy and around her neck – but now that she’s left the infant stage where she’s unable to communicate preference, I want to demonstrate to her that this respect continues 24 hours a day. Of course I could just pay lip service to it and then smother her little chubby cheeks in mummy kisses as soon as she’s out – she wouldn’t know I’d broken her trust, but I would. And it would be heartbreaking.

The reaction I mostly got was ‘that’s fascinating’, and I’ve no doubt it sounds a lot like weird, handwringing, liberal overthinking. Even if it is, I’d rather overthink this stuff than not think about it at all. When you’re raising a girl, one of the topics you cannot ignore is personal safety; we live in a world where female autonomy and bodily integrity is not sacrosanct. In the slightest. I was very much taught about the practicalities of navigating a life around this as a youngster and a teen – personal alarms, not walking alone, self-defence classes, holding keys as weapons. And while I think that teaching a few defensive strategies has an element of common sense to it, I also think that focussing entirely on that basically says “this is your responsibility, as a girl” – and it’s blatantly not. I cannot, in raising a girl, control what other people will do around her. But I can help fight a culture that suggests that she can. To me, the best way to do that is to continually reinforce her confidence in her own boundaries.

This makes it sound like we all sit there politely asking each other for cuddles as you might ask to pass the salt, and anyone who has ever seen our family in real life would find this pretty hilarious. We’re a seriously huggy bunch (as anyone who has ever gone drinking with me will know); we just place emphasis on the fact that the word ‘no’ is important. More recently we’ve also talked about non-verbal cues as well; when my daughter told me she sometimes wanted to say ‘stop’ in the tickle game but was laughing too hard, I suggested she use a gesture instead and she decided on holding her hand up like a traffic police officer. It’s a constantly evolving process and negotiation, because the paradox of being a child is being taught that you have agency but told you have to go to school, must have your jabs, should eat your greens and will go to bed by a certain time. Parents exist in the land of I Know What’s Best For You, and to my mind she will trust in me offering up this sometimes bitter medicine (we recently had a belated phase two of the MMR, and it was not fun) if the rest of the time the sweet, sweet sugar is confidence in her own autonomy and ability to make decisions and choices that feel right to her. I position myself as the guardian of her safety and health – my number one job as Mama, part and parcel with loving her more than anyone else in the world – and her as the guardian of her personal space. And it’s a partnership which involves her direction and leadership as well as mine, until she’s old enough to take the reins entirely.

Of course I second-guess myself occasionally. For example, does making an agreement beforehand convey consent when one is asleep? For the moment I go with it because on those occasions where we haven’t spoken for some reason so I just poke my head in and leave it at that, she’s disappointed at ‘missing out’ on cuddles when we speak the next morning. She often proactively announces to her dad, without being asked, how much affection she wants doled out when I get home. But eventually I guess my mad work schedule will differ and she’ll get older and less concerned with missed bedtimes and this will all change.

But what won’t change, ever, is my respect for her. So I will carry on having what might seem like needlessly complex rituals in order to reinforce this for her because I really believe it’s important.

Is this something you ever think or worry about with your children or relatives’ children? Do you have family routines and behaviours which seem baffling to others but underscore an important message from your perspective? I strongly suspect I’m not the only one…

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2 responses to “Consent and conversations with young children (or why I ask permission for cuddles at night)

  1. I’ve always been concerned about this with my niece and nephew, who are told to kiss everyone hello and good bye. Every time one grudgingly approaches me on command I quietly say, “You don’t have to kiss anyone when you don’t want to.”. Of course, you want the kids to be polite, but hugging and kissing people is never a matter of good manners.

    [I’m about to give a non-graphic but extreme example].
    I’m acutely aware of this because the first time I was raped, I was eighteen and didn’t have a clue how to say no. I certainly objected, but in terms of, “I don’t want to do this, thank you” escalating to, “That really hurts, would you mind stopping now please?”

    I know that’s absolutely unambiguous, but I dearly wish I’d been armed with “No!” and “Stop!” accompanied by complete and overwhelming outrage that I wasn’t being listened to. It might not have stopped things happening then (although it might have) but it certainly would have driven me to leave that relationship directly, instead of trying to work out what had gone wrong and ultimately blaming myself.

    Much later on, when I talked to my poor Mum about that relationship (which was violent in other ways too), she said something like, “But we always taught you girls to stand up for yourselves!”

    Only they didn’t. They didn’t teach us to be passive or submissive, they taught us to be ambitious and to take ourselves seriously, but they also taught us to be “polite” above almost anything else.

    Sorry for such a long comment, but what you’re doing here strikes me as ever so important. No just to protect your lass from violence (and to instill her with the kind of confidence that makes predators wary of approach), but to put her in a better position to negotiate with the world in all kinds of ways and provide a good examples to others.

    • Alexandra Roumbas Goldstein

      Thank you so much for sharing this – I dearly wish you didn’t have it to share, but really appreciate it. I am a real polite people-pleaser with a continuing dread of “causing a fuss”, particularly with people I feel strongly about. If my daughter can’t feel safe making clear her boundaries with me, when can she?

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