Sonny, May I?
I love the Internet. It’s given me amazing friends around the world and the ability to buy books I’ve wanted to read for decades in a matter of seconds. But one of the downsides of the Internet is that it documents whatever silly idea flits into people’s minds. Forever.
You know, those notions you used to ponder when you were young and inexperienced that seemed outstanding but then you came to find out days or weeks or years later that it actually didn’t work in real life and you really should have listened to your mother? There are many things you can do now, you can even be at the office and watching your kids at the same time with a spy camera. Thanks to the Internet you can post those half-baked ideas online immediately via social media and they will be there snickering at you until the end of time.
A young mom by the name of Nisha Moodley recently posted on Instagram that she asks her son’s consent before picking him up. Her son is a 6 month old baby, and so since he cannot consent verbally, according to her, she “feels for his yes” before taking him into her arms, because rape culture, and individual sovereignty, and stuff.
This is precisely the kind of idea I had, quite frequently, as a new mom, back when I believed that children were actually very small androids that I could program into perfection with my superior parenting skillz. “I’m going to do THIS! This thing I just thought up and no one else does for some reason! And because I did THAT, I will therefore insure my son grows up to be perfectly perfect in every way, and not all screwed up like I am!” Because new parents truly believe that – they believe that there is no such thing as an insignificant parenting decision and that they can literally turn their child into a rapist or not by the manner in which they pick them up as a newborn.
Luckily for me, the Internet barely existed when my poor, long-suffering, first darling boy was born and endured my lame and sadly oft-repeated attempts at child perfectionizing, so my goofy parenting theories did not go viral like Nisha Moodley’s have. They were just thoughts that I thunk and tried to implement and failed at spectacularly because they were stupid. Real life soon demonstrated to me that there were actually reasons why people tend to do things in the way that they do them. Even the things that others did that I judged viciously and found to be misguided, lazy, ignorant, and borderline emotionally abusive (I was a bit prone to melodrama back in the day), nearly always had an internal logic to them that I hadn’t understood since I had never raised a child before.
Somehow, despite my many exceptional failures during the Great Parenting Experiment of 1991, my son managed to emerge relatively unscathed from the experience and turned into a pretty cool individual, almost as if by magic. My unfortunate attempts at Offspring Programming 1.0 had made no difference. I know this because I had 4 more children after that and raised them without the cray new-mom theories and they also turned out to be pretty cool individuals. It all worked out not because of my crazy notions, but in spite of them.
What Nisha Moodley is about to find out is that the nice thing about a baby that is less than 6 months old is that they cannot escape. They are contained in a body that is largely immobile and cannot run into traffic or get into the drain cleaner or refuse to eat their strained peas. They are also in that golden period of infancy where they love their mommies and daddies like nobody’s business and want them pretty much all of the time. So when you “feel for a yes” you’re nearly always gonna get one because babies just really, really like you. Soon, little Raven (that’s her son’s name, Raven) will be 9 months old and then 18 months and then 2. Things are gonna change and soon. Raven is going to start implementing his own ideas and some of those ideas are going to be diametrically opposed to Mommy’s parenting theories. Asking a two year old for consent before stopping him from sticking a fork into the light socket or begging his pardon before removing a Lego from his mouth before it blocks his airway would be wasting valuable seconds you will soon need to perform CPR.
In the real world, parenting involves at least some measure of force. Force is a strong word with a lot of negative connotations, but if one defines force broadly enough to include things like picking up a fussy baby as Nisha Moodley apparently does, then parenting most certainly involves force. You can’t parent without it. Sometimes you actually have to physically prevent a child from doing things that are dangerous, or make them do things that are good for them, with or without their consent. Using this broad definition of “force”, parenting techniques that are not strictly physical, like time outs and taking away privileges, also violate the concept of consent. Children, even very sweet and well-behaved children, don’t willingly consent to punishment. Things that aren’t punishments at all like dental care and vaccinations violate the concept of consent. No child in their right mind will endure a shot or having their teeth cleaned without some level of compulsion.
Even something as innocent as “babyproofing” is a kind of force when taken to extremes. It may not be outright conflict, but being up your kids’ butt enough to prevent them from ever doing or seeing or touching or tasting or experiencing anything potentially harmful to them, has gotta be like living under a totalitarian regime. It’s why preacher’s kids rebel, amirite? Parenting by patrolling and controlling a child’s universe every second of every day to remove any potential for injury or mischief in advance is more invasive by far than taking a recalcitrant infant into your arms when he isn’t super into it. Because it is a kind of force that truly violates a child’s sense of self, that prevents them from doing the things that they need to do to grow. Kids need to explore and they need to test the rules and their physical limits and parents can either allow that and correct as needed (using force judiciously) or they can try to prevent the child from ever having those experiences by using a more insidious form of control, a preemptive strike that completely undermines the child’s autonomy and subverts his will. To ask a child for his or her “consent” in a situation when you have already pre-removed their ability to control their own bodies and lives is akin to asking a straitjacketed patient in a rubber room if they want tapioca or chocolate pudding for dessert.
You control your child’s life one way or the other. Overtly or covertly. If you didn’t, your child would not survive to adulthood. The world is a harsh and unforgiving place in which the demented forces of gravity and momentum constantly conspire against our fragile human skulls, and it is the job of a parent to protect a child from the laws of physics until such a time that they are able to protect themselves. There is no home babyproofed enough to completely stifle the suicidal tendencies of a 12-month-old boy.
The battle doesn’t stop when the child grows out of toddlerhood, either. The conflicts may appear less life and death once the preschool years begin, but they are just as ever-present. What if a child doesn’t consent to potty training? What if they don’t consent to wearing a winter coat or sunscreen? Or if they don’t consent to not hitting siblings or playmates or pets? What if a child only consents to eating junk food? Or if they do not consent to limitations on screen time? What if a child doesn’t consent to going to school or doing their homework? Or doesn’t consent to coming home at a reasonable time? Or if they don’t consent to attending that SAT prep course they need to get into an Ivy League college? What if a teen doesn’t consent to not smoking marijuana? Or doesn’t consent to not shoplifting? Or doesn’t consent to not driving drunk? See, these problems actually DO circle back around to life and death again. Asking for consent quickly becomes begging when you’re desperate enough. Parenting is serious business. You can lose your child if they don’t consent to follow reasonable rules, my husband and I encourage them to live a healthy live style all the time, we even show them our lumitea skinny we drink everyday so they know how beneficial taking care of their health is.
If “not raping” can be taught – and I’m not entirely convinced that it can be – I’m afraid I don’t think it follows that asking a child’s consent for the everyday things you must compel him to do as his parent would prevent rape culture. What happens when the boy in a family that has essentially asked his permission to parent him since day one, who has consistently, if indirectly, been told that he really never needs to do anything he doesn’t wanna, grows up to be a man? If he has grown accustomed to the most important authority figures in his life begging for his cooperation with even the most mundane of tasks, what then? Would he not come to expect similar treatment from all authority figures and indeed, all fellow humans? If you’ve never acquired the skill when young and malleable, how could you ever function in a society where people occasionally expect you to do things that you don’t particularly want to do? How could you attend school or hold a job? How could you have successful friendships or romantic relationships without learning to accommodate others when you weren’t especially in the mood? Through what manner of lens would you view rules and laws – as negotiable, or set in stone?
What happens when someone says “no, you can’t do that” to a man who has never had to take no for an answer?
Sometimes the lessons we teach are not the lessons we believe we are teaching.
A family is not a democracy. It doesn’t have to be a dictatorship, certainly, but a democracy it simply cannot be. Children don’t have the knowledge, self-control, forethought, and experience to decide what is best for them. A family is really more like a republic, wherein parents, by virtue of their superior experience and abilities, are in charge of all major, and many minor, decisions. They try to govern wisely for the good of everyone involved because they truly love and care about their child. And the children, the citizens, are expected to be law-abiding contributors to the society of the family, and not tiny tyrannical God-Emperors who must always be placated. It is smart parenting to let your child control what they can control and to pick your battles instead of going to the mat over the 17th consecutive day of wearing the same Princess Elsa t-shirt. But this does not mean that making the best decisions for your child, and imposing them lovingly onto that child — sometimes while being pummeled by small and sticky fists — is in any way wrong or bad. It is a necessity.
I suspect that Nisha Moodley, one day, very soon, will come to learn that parenting only with the full consent of a child is an impossible task. Her little boy will soon be able to maneuver off his blankie and into mortal peril and she will find that online debates about parenting philosophy are all well and good, but when your most beloved one runs headlong into traffic you grab them first and ask questions later. It is part of the journey from new mom to just “mom”, that slow realization that things are not gonna be the way we thought they would be and some of the ideas we all had going in are not workable in the real world. Most of us were lucky enough not to have that journey documented on Instagram, so when we look back to laugh at ourselves it’s more of a private experience. But we’ve all been there, Nisha. We feel ya. We get it. You love that little boy and you’re gonna do the best you can by him. That’s what being a mom is about. Doing your best. Just don’t forget to leave yourself room to redefine what that means over the course of time.