Consent. It’s a word we’re hearing more often these days. It especially started gathering momentum shortly after the Jian Ghomeshi fiasco hit the news—a story involving alleged non-consensual sexual acts. Consent is a word that’s been a big part of my vocabulary for the last 25 years—thanks to my work counselling clients. Before I provide any therapeutic help, clients need to sign a consent to treatment form after reading the parameters of our relationship and what to expect. Most are not unfamiliar with this protocol. But with this word making headlines and coming to the fore, I was reminded again of how important consent really is, and how it fits in to our day-to-day family lives.
This got me thinking even further about the age at which we deem children capable of giving consent—not only from a legal perspective with professionals but even on an everyday basis with parents. I was especially thinking about the divorced parents who share with me that their child is not happy spending overnights with the other parent, only to be told ‘sorry, but the legal documents say you have to,’ and also reflecting on other words we use and the power we exert when insisting that our children do something that they’d rather not.
If you listen to conversations between parents and their children (yours and mine included), you will no doubt hear lots of examples of a parents imposing something against his or her child’s will. I get that there are daily activities that, given the choice, most kids would prefer not to engage in: brushing teeth, taking a shower, waking up early and going to school, to name a few. I also get that there are decisions that parents need to make and give consent for on behalf of their children that make them pretty unpopular, like ‘Yes, you do need to let the dentist take pictures of your teeth even though it is uncomfortable,’ for example.
However, I’m thinking that there are also times when we disregard our children’s wishes and impose our own on them, when we might not need to. ‘You need to wear gloves. I don’t care what you say. It’s cold outside’, or ‘You will sit here and eat your vegetables even if you have to sit here all night,’ are examples of times when a parent may consider a different approach so that a child can feel more in charge of his or her own body. So, instead of insisting that gloves be worn, let your child’s hands be cold as a reminder for next time that gloves are better worn than left at home. Or, instead of insisting that your child eat everything on their plate and thereby teaching them not to listen to what their body is saying (‘I’ll gag if I eat those green beans’), let your child serve himself food from platters on the table. If he sees you eating green beans, I promise there will come a time when he will try one instead of being turned off beans for the rest of his life after being forced to eat them.
Even though these examples might seem trivial when compared to the kinds of acts that probably come to mind when we think of consent, the takeaway message here is this: if you show respect towards your children by acknowledging their desire to be in charge of their own bodies and that their tastes and needs differ from yours, then they too will not only learn to respect themselves but appreciate you more, too. In addition, if you talk with them about choices and allow them to stand up for what they believe in, then they will be better equipped to make good choices later in life.
The silver lining to all of this shocking news is that a somewhat taboo topic is now out in the open. Parents are springing into discussions with their sons about how to respect girls (and others of course) and to their daughters about how to trust their intuitive selves, how to say no and how to speak up until someone listens (even when they’re afraid to do so).
I urge you, as parents, to consider what you’re modelling in your own relationships. Remain true to your messages about consent by being conscious of how you’re molding your children into respectful and sensitive people by first being respectful and sensitive towards them.
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When my children were younger, I was as excited as they were when a school break came around—and it wasn’t just the reprieve from having to think up creative school lunches that appealed. For me, it was a break from extra curricular activities. No more dance on Wednesdays, yoga on Thursdays and swimming on Fridays—at least for a couple of weeks anyway. After talking to other parents however, I knew that my schedule didn’t even compare to some whose kids were involved in competitive dance or in a hockey league. Multiply that by two or three children and both parents and kids are often left feeling exhausted.
I’ve always encouraged parents not to enroll their children in more than two extra curricular activities per week. Religious school may be a third, depending on the family’s inclination and the age of the child. When my children were preschoolers, I enrolled them in more. (Having two children born eight years apart certainly had its advantages). For instance, when my second was born, my first was already in grade two. I had more time at my disposal to explore different programs. As she got a little older, I noticed that she liked to climb and move in her physical space. So, we checked out gymnastics and found that she had a real aptitude for it. When she entered grade one, we put gymnastics on the back burner and she enrolled in dance. Swimming, the second extra curricular, I made mandatory since I considered it an essential life skill. The following year I let her choose between dance and gym (swim continued) and we added religious school into the mix. In short, my recommendation is for parents to explore as much as time and energy allows before their child goes into grade one. After that, it’s best to refine the choices according to your child’s interests or aptitude. Allow them to choose one activity each year, maybe alternating for a couple of years until they settle on one. A second choice, as I said, may be yours—an essential skill such as swimming, for example.
Children, like adults, can feel overwhelmed from always being on the run. A sandwich for dinner in the car three nights a week is not ideal. As well, by occupying our children every waking moment, we don’t teach them the value and importance of enjoying their own company during quiet moments. Learning how to sit still, process and reflect on what is going on around them and developing patience are just some of the benefits of not always being on the run. It’s true that keeping them busy does sometimes keep them out of trouble, but sometimes to the detriment of the family.
Instead of adding another activity to an already full plate, consider scheduling ‘family time’ instead. Especially in families where parents are working full time, most children prefer just spending quality time with their parents when they get home from work. This may include sitting down to eat dinner as a family at least a couple of times a week, without feeling that it’s tightly squeezed between getting home from school and work and rushing out to another activity. It may also include putting one night a week aside to play board games or even to watch a mutually enjoyed show on television together. Spending time together as a family might include going tobogganing on a hill near your house after dinner, raking leaves (and then jumping into the piles), visiting grandparents or volunteering. All of this together time will create wonderful memories and encourage bonding as a family.
The bottom line is that there’s as much to be learned and gained from spending time with one another as there is from learning or developing a new skill. So, don’t feel guilty about not keeping up with the Jones’s. Instead, de-stress by taking some of the load off your plate and hanging out with the people you love.
Image of tired child from Shutterstock.