10 October 2016

Building a Culture of Consent, One Karate Class at a Time

I was at my son's karate class this week in my usual spot with other parents and siblings, holding my daughter as she tapped away at my phone taking pictures and exploring the shiny bubbly apps on the screen. 

She is two. 

A very outgoing and sweet boy came up to us and first hovered, then kind of squeezed his body up against ours to take a better look at the little screen. 

He looked about four years old. 

My daughter quickly looked up at my face, a look I see often when she is apprehensive about what is currently going on and looking to me and my reaction to either affirm her fears or sooth them with a look that says "It's okay, this is fine." 

My face was a question back to her...and then words: "Do you not want him to see the phone so close? Would you like to give it to me and I can put it away?" 
This was like asking to take away an ice cream cone. 
"No" she shook her head. 
"Well, he's interested in it and it may be good to either ask him not to give you space, or come up on my lap and I'll hold you, you can tell him 'No' if you want, or you can share and show him what you are doing" 
She opted for a very quiet "No" and then crawled onto my lap with the phone tucked up under her chin and tightly against her chest. 

At this point the little boy kind of caught the drift and moved away to go investigate another child's activities down the row. About two minutes later he came back and this time I could see his body was slightly rigid with anger and emotion and desire and ready to confront us. 

He walked up to inches of our faces and practically yelled, "Sharing is caring! Sharing is caring! If you don't share, it's not fair!" 

My heart dropped, and my own emotion and reaction was immediate, but I am thirty seven and have more control than a small child. What I wanted to do was pick my daughter up and run and yell over my shoulder..."She doesn't have to share if she doesn't want to, and you better start learning this now, kid!" 

Instead, I looked down at my daughter who was clutching the phone against her chest again and fiercely scowling at him with a very furrowed brow and a worried frown. She looked to me again. 

Mom-teaching moment... I turned to the boy "You know, if you have something that is yours and don't want to share it, that is really okay. You are right that sharing is caring, but we don't have to share if we don't want to, and it looks like right now she doesn't want to share the phone with you." He walked away with a strong pout. 

Okay, so here's what I know. I know that he was absolutely in the right to voice his emotions and desires. I know he was completely in the right to want what he wanted and to ask for it and even demand it. But what angered me is that somewhere along the way, this boy was fed those lines "Caring is Sharing and if you don't share, it's not Fair!" I get it, I was raised in the era of parenting where we took turns when demanded to, not when we were done with the toy or swing or game. I was told basically the same mantra many times, that we share, no matter what, sharing is the decent thing to do and if you don't you are a snob or a bully or a little shit of some kind. And I absolutely still encourage and foster the idea of sharing between my children and their friends, but that's the key: encourage, not require. 

I think our children can start learning a huge lesson in consent at the age of, yes, two...by reinforcing the very very critical point that if you don't want to share, that is also your right and absolutely okay. Every scenario my daughter and this sweet little boy (for he absolutely is a sweet child) would independently face in life came flooding at me and I realized the magnitude of such a seemingly small lesson I could teach both my son to be a man and my daughter to be a woman. When asked to give, to take part in, yes to share, the choice has to be of ones own and not due to pressure of moral stature or what's "fair" because life ain't fair and we will all be told "No" in so many small and big ways and we are better prepared if we know how to accept that response and also dish it out and be confident in doing so. And while my knee-jerk reaction was to go all momma-bulldog on this boy, I actually had great compassion for him and the disservice he is being taught at this age, that life is fair and he is entitled to what he craves and wants in any given moment. 

I know there is a shift already in many parenting and teaching circles to "fix" this idea of timed turns and forced sharing, and I am grateful for that and grateful that my son was in such an environment at preschool. But there are many who are not there yet, we could all be teaching our children some important lessons that will serve them well as adults, and particularly as young adults wrought with emotions and hormones. Something as simple as saying "No is okay, it sucks to hear, but it's their choice" could allow our children to adapt and grow simply knowing this as truth. 

It's the subtle suggestion that instils my daughter with the idea that "Oh, if I say no, this disappoints him, but that's okay, it is my (body, self, integrity, property, skill, etc.) and not his to take or demand" as opposed to the subtle dangerous suggestion that "If I say no, I disappoint him, and that is not okay." 

Consent has been the hot topic lately with this presidential election season and while it's scary and outright infuriating to have to witness such a show of limitless absurdity, these conversations are happening and bringing much to light. And damn it if this all doesn't need to be brought to the surface and wide out in the open. There is hope in this dialogue and unpeeling of ourselves and what we choose not to talk about or share.

Let's allow for a new attention on the subtleties as well as the outright obvious ways we build humans up around us and either give them the strength and confidence to use their voices and communicate their needs, or create an environment of timidity, fear, stunted and wayward emotions, and reactionary instincts. I intend to help my daughter and my son have the right tools earlier than I did. At thirty seven, I am still finding my voice and strength to speak my needs and my place in the world and it shouldn't take us that long to get there.

And to the sweet angry boy who was turned down, may he find his way, and if we see one another again, I intend to keep the dialogue going so that there is a perspective in his daily routine that suggests an alternative is indeed possible. And if nothing else, I send him Love. 

Applewood Heart