Julie often narrates her actions when touching her three-month-old son. “I’ll say to him, ‘I’m going to take off your diaper,’ or, ‘I’m going to undress you for the bath,’" she tells Romper. "He may not be able to respond yet, but I want him to understand that I respect his body — so he will respect other people’s going forward.” Julie is one of a growing group of mothers who believe in teaching their children about consent from a very young age — before their babies can speak at all.
The #MeToo movement has sparked a lot of conversation surrounding a host of issues, ranging from the pervasiveness of rape culture, the power of whisper networks, and — especially recently — the definition of consent. On January 13, babe.net published an exposé detailing a woman’s alleged sexual encounter with actor and comedian Aziz Ansari, in which he allegedly coerced her into acts that she claims she was uncomfortable with. In the days that have passed since, there has been a constant discussion on social media about what constitutes consent, and, just as importantly, what does not. Given the widespread (and problematic) misunderstanding of the term, it only makes sense that consent education should begin at a young age — and some moms are starting with their newborns.
The concept of consent has evolved a lot over time. With regard to sexual activity, the popular slogan “no means no” has, in recent years, morphed into “yes means yes.” To take that one step further, there is the notion of “affirmative consent,” or “enthusiastic consent,” meaning that all parties involved are communicating their ongoing willingness to participate. Ideally, establishing consent should not just happen once, but rather, repeatedly throughout the act.
I tell her when I'm changing her clothes, or putting on lotion, or applying any medicine.
Of course, the term “consent” goes beyond sexual activity, and, in a generic sense, has to do with ownership over our bodies. And this is where parenting comes in. Some moms believe that it’s important to introduce the topic of consent to their babies in order to teach them about body autonomy.
In July 2017, The New York Post reported a trend where parents are asking their babies before picking them up. “We want him to know that his body is his, and that others’ bodies are theirs, and no one gets to make choices about someone else’s body,” Nisha Moodley, a mother to a six-month-old, explained at the time.
And Moodeley is not alone. Rachel, a mom of two, tells Romper that she teaches her daughters that they are allowed to say no when it comes to their bodies. “I’ve never forced them to hug and kiss a family member, not even me or their grandma,” she explains. “They get to decide. I will often ask them if they would like a hug or a kiss. I do my best not to tell them I’m disappointed or sad if they say no. I don’t want to teach them they have to say yes to keep others happy.”
Kristin, a mother to a two-month-old girl, has a similar strategy. "I tell her when I'm changing her clothes, or putting on lotion, or applying any medicine," she explains. "When she gets old enough to answer, I'll ask."
This performance of consent will carry on through to other decisions about their child's body, says Ashlyn, a mother of a five-month-old girl. “I want my daughter to make important decisions about her body,” she tells Romper. “Like, I plan to wait before piercing her ears or cutting her hair. She gets to decide that stuff, not me.”
Another mother says that social media plays a role as well. “I don’t put any of my daughter’s photos on Facebook,” Marissa, a mom to a four-month-old girl, tells Romper. “She can’t consent to having her picture out there for all to see, so why should I make that decision for her?”
The earlier we explore the idea of consent — who can enter your personal space, how and when — the more likely they will absorb important concepts like autonomy, respect and healthy relationships.
Some might find this practice silly, wondering if babies can truly learn anything about consent. John, a father of a one-month-old girl, is skeptical about these benefits. "Babies don't really know anything at first," he tells Romper, "so does it really matter?" He adds, "Also, they need their diapers changed. They need to be bathed. What happens when they get old enough to say no? Are you really going to not change their diaper?"
However, studies have shown that it is actually an effective strategy. Marnie Goldenberg, a Vancouver-based sex educator, told Parents Magazine that children learn a lot throughout their first five years of life. “The earlier we explore the idea of consent — who can enter your personal space, how and when — the more likely they will absorb important concepts like autonomy, respect and healthy relationships.”
Additionally, even though babies can't engage in conversation, they likely understand more than we think. A 2013 study conducted by the University of Washington revealed that babies can start recognizing sound and speech while in the womb. "This study moves the measurable result of experience with speech sounds from six months of age to before birth," explained Christine Moon, lead author and a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University. Patricia Kuhl, co-author and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, added: "The mother has first dibs on influencing the child’s brain."
The bottom line is that consent is a crucial issue for all people to understand, and recent conversations have proved how the topic is easy to misconstrue. By starting early, these moms are helping their babies understand how to respect their bodies — and others’ — from the beginning. Perhaps if more people make this a staple of early parenting, future generations will understand consent better than those in the past.
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