My kids are — right now — five, eight, twelve, and fourteen.
From the time my oldest was a baby, I was hyperaware of the fact that he was a whole new person, a human being, someone who needed to learn — from me — how to be a kind person and navigate the world safely and wisely.
(I used to say ‘a good person’, but I think that term is problematic.)
Even though I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home, which traditionally advocates for the submission of women and the headship of men, I have always known that all people are equal and deserve equal respect, equal treatment, and equal consideration.
As a parent, my focus became: how do I teach my children to be the kind of people who respect others, who ask first, who take no for an answer, and who do not willingly submit themselves to abuses OR become abusers themselves?
Obviously this is not something they cover in the Universal Parenting Handbook (which, by the way, must have got lost in the mail because I never got my copy). This is the kind of thing you have to learn by doing, and trying, and listening, and observing; and by attempting to behave like the kind of person you would want your children to emulate.
Right now, we are working on learning to embody consent.
Until my youngest and I started working with a therapist every week to help him through his difficulties around custody exchanges, I did not realize that I still had something to work on around consent and personal respect of others’ bodies.
My son Nick is one of the most effusively affectionate people I know.
He makes friends without reservation, offers compliments freely, and gives hugs with the intensity of a tornado. I’ve always loved this about him, but there are some problematic issues that go along with being an effusive, affectionate, trusting person who does not yet have safe boundaries in his mind.
Now, we have two rules — for everyone in the house:
1) Always ask permission.
To cuddle, to kiss, to hug, to touch. Ask first. I discourage surprise hugs and flying-off-the-couch cuddle attacks, unless permission was asked for and granted beforehand.
This might seem like an injustice to a child’s natural affection, but in fact it makes these encounters all the sweeter when permission is asked for and given.
For one thing, when I’m expecting the giant amazing hug, I can enjoy it even more in the spirit in which it was intended. And I can brace myself so that nobody’s mug of coffee or electronic device or favorite toy becomes a victim of exuberance.
I love hugs and kisses and cuddles with my children, and I cherish them even more when they’re a mutual experience. It has amazed me how happily my two youngest ask if they can give a hug, and how happy they are to accommodate a YES or a NO or a HOLD ON JUST A MINUTE.
Which leads to the next rule …
2) The only thing that means YES is YES.
The underlying meaning in “the only thing that means yes is yes” is a fundamental belief that what you want or need does not trump someone else’s wants or needs.
Not only that, but this is a perfect starting-off point to have more conversations about the importance of communication, and why we ask in the first place, and how we can express our needs and wants in words because we care about what people have to say. We care about each other deeply, and because of that, YES MEANS YES is a no-brainer.
There are times when I ask one of my kids if they would like a hug, and that is not, in fact, what they want OR what would make them feel better.
And because one of my other big Things To Work On is communication, we are usually able to have a conversation about what would make them feel better, or what we can do instead, if in fact something needs to be done or could be done.
Having these guidelines about consent has opened up amazing conversations about communication, about boundaries, and about personhood and human rights and gender equality.
I want my kids to have these tools while they are learning to navigate the world they live in.
I want them to have underpinnings of safety and wisdom in addition to the naturally deep wells of love and trust and kindness they already have.
And I want them to have a natural-as-breathing understanding of healthy boundaries and healthy relationships and when is an appropriate time to say no.
All in all, these four people are (in additional to being wonderful people in their own right) the embodiment of the best of me, because raising them has required all of my ability to learn, to adapt, and to love unconditionally.
This post originally published at rhiannonllewellyn.com – it has been lightly edited.