Today I’m going to talk about teaching consent to a toddler. A toddler who isn’t even 18 months old yet. How the hell are we supposed to do this?
I was always concerned about people forcing hugs and kisses on our baby. I wanted her to learn consent so she could trust her feelings and know when she didn’t want to be touched, and feel confident saying no to physical affection from anyone, even trusted family members. To our surprise, that has been the easy part. Our family and friends have been pretty good about following our lead in asking if they can hold, hug or kiss her. Our problem is that we need to teach Avery to get consent before giving physical affection.
She’s such a huggy, kissy, loving baby. She always has a big, run-at-us-full-tilt, hug for us, and an abundance of lovely kisses on the lips with the best “mwaaa” sound effects. We love it. But somehow we need her to understand that not everyone does.
Her best friend at daycare is petite, and although the two of them are the same age exactly, Avery is twice the size. Avery LOVES her friend. Unfortunately, our daycare provider has reported back to us on a couple of ocassions that Avery’s forceful kisses and hugs aren’t always wanted by her friend, and sometimes Avery’s bear hugs knock them both over and her friend ends up crying.
So what do we say or do to teach Avery to dial back the overt affection and wait for cues of consent to proceed? A young child of her age hasn’t yet developed empathy as we know it, and can’t articulate how someone else might feel when receiving unwanted physical affection. All she knows is simple instruction, like “no.” But we don’t want to just say “no touching,” as it feels too general and isn’t the message we want to send.
What we’ve come up with is to use a one-word instruction that has worked really well to teach her how to approach the cats: “Gentle.” When we instruct her to be gentle, she slows down her approach and seems to become more watchful for signs that she can approach. We’ve asked our daycare provider to use this word when she starts laying on the unwanted affection with her friend, and if that doesn’t work, to simply say “Please don’t touch her right now.”
Our approach is to give simple instructions that are easy to understand and follow. But this doesn’t really tap into what consent is, or why someone may not want her wonderful, loving hugs and kisses. But I think maybe she’s just too young for that level of context.
What are your thoughts on this parenting conundrum?