Recently, an interview on ABC News went viral. Deanne Carson, a sexuality educator, speaker and author, expressed the need to ask a child for consent and used the example of a parent asking a child to change their nappy.
You can see a snippet of the interview here.
It was trashed by media headlines all over the world as ludicrous and outrageous. But what a lot of people don’t realise is, they are likely doing this anyway!
A lot of parents as well as educators DO tell their baby or child that it’s time to change their nappy. They DO ask ‘can I change your nappy?’ You’d be surprised that you really do have this attitude anyway. So it’s important we don’t make out this is some new, crazy concept invented by this ‘lady with the pink hair’, as it’s really not.
I completed my studies in Early Childhood back in 2002 and was taught to verbally express to the child what I was about to do. Now as a mother of two boys, I always, without thinking, say something along the lines of “Hey buddy, have you done a poo, let’s go change your nappy”. It is a natural thing to say.
Deanne also commented in her interview that she didn’t expect a non-verbal baby to respond verbally or that an older child could and often do respond “no” when asked this question, however in the media coverage since the interview, this all seems to have been left out. Leaving parents reading about this, thinking “What a ridiculous thing to do?”.
A young baby isn’t going to respond, however, you as their parent or care giver are letting them know what is about to happen. You are introducing the baby to verbal interactions. We do it instinctually. I remember as a new mum I was in the supermarket with my very new baby and I spoke to him saying something like “What have I forgotten? There was something else we needed”. I remember a young man looking at me quite oddly and me just having a giggle to myself, because that’s what you do as a parent, you chat to your child, no matter how young they are, and of course I didn’t expect him to answer. I was including him in what was happening around him.
Babies are taking it all in, even if they are not verbally responding to you. They are listening to your tone, the sounds that you make and watching how you place your mouth, because one day they will begin to speak (and then you can’t get them to stop).
My 3 year old, on the other hand, can and very often does responds with a flat out “No” when I ask to change his nappy. This will be because he is playing something that is far more interesting than changing his nappy. I am so desperate for him to toilet train, but that is a whole other battle at the moment!!
Now Deanne was not advocating in her interview that I would then leave my son in a dirty nappy because he said ‘no’.
Once again, as many of us parents and care givers have done many times, we negotiate (and bribe, if necessary). At times I have suggested he bring the toy he is playing with to the change mat, or I give him a warning “5 mins and then we will go and change that nappy”. I will also explain to him the need to change it, “because sitting in a dirty nappy for too long will give you a sore bottom”. It doesn’t take much before we are off to change it.
Now I don’t do any of this because I am intentionally attempting to ‘build a culture of consent’ in our home, as Deanne Carson put it. It is just a natural thing to do when communicating with children, and for most people parenting and caring for children in an educator role it does come naturally, but for some it needs to be taught explicitly.
It may be because of the way they were raised themselves. Talking, explaining everything you do, demonstrating feelings of respect and empathy for a child’s vulnerability and maintaining a calm humour builds neural connections in the brain so an “awareness” of the concept of consent begins to develop.
In some families though children are told and that’s that; never allowed to voice their emotions or preferences. A child growing up in this kind of environment will learn their thoughts and opinions don’t matter. Allowing children to have a voice and make decisions of their own develops a confident child who feels empowered and able to make a stand when needed.
Now, this doesn’t mean you let your child dictate everything, some things should be up to the parent to decide. My child would live on chicken nuggets and never even look at a vegetable if it was up to him!! We, as adults, need to assist them to learn how to make healthy, good choices. I tend to find if a child feels they have some say then they will also bend a little more on other issues too.
So how did this all become a debate about giving sexual consent?
Well, this interview was in response to a Four Corners story that had aired earlier in the week about the young man who was jailed for rape only to be subsequently released amid debate about sexual consent.
This led to Deanne Carson being asked about her work with children and their parents and developing a culture of consent within the home. But consent isn’t solely about sexual consent, especially when it comes to children.
The word consent seems to be connected to giving consent for physical interactions. Some people may think changing a nappy could leave a baby vulnerable to sexual abuse. But this really wasn’t what this topic was about.
The residual effect of a culture of consent means that a child raised believing they have a say and a right to say something when they don’t feel comfortable is a hope that they will be able to voice concern if they need to in relation to anything, including sexual activities or abuse when they are older.
Let’s not get too bogged down in all of that. Ultimately what Deanne was expressing was nothing new. It just may not have been verbalised to some people before.
The professionals in the education and care of young children have all been trained in this area in their studies, so are more familiar with this being discussed openly. But for many parents this is just something you all do naturally as the good parents you are.
So, really not such a crazy new thing that this “lady with the pink hair” is discussing. So, let’s all calm down and go back to respecting and talking to our children.