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Transcend Harsh Limits With Kids: But No Still Means No

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We had a guest parenting columnist in our Summer issue: Hand in Hand Parenting instructor Pamela Quiery! She wrote about how parents can transcend harsh limits with their children, while still setting clear boundaries. Read the full piece below!

Transcend Harsh Limits With Kids

But No still means No

by Pamela Quiery

A few years back, when my daughter was about four years old, a new family moved into our neighbourhood. Their two children started to play in our back garden. One child was the same age as my daughter, and her big brother was about four years older. The trampoline in our garden was a big attraction, and the three children started bouncing on it happily. 

I noticed that the older boy was jumping quite aggressively, diving on purpose into his sister and pinning her to the ground. She shrieked in protest but he refused to get off her and laughed at her attempts to free herself. He was the only one enjoying the game. Before I had time to intervene, my own daughter took matters into her own hands. She got down to the boy’s level and shouted, “no means no. If someone says STOP, you have to stop.”

I backed her up at this stage. I separated the wrestling children and reinforced the boundary she had stated. I told the kids that the rules for playing at our house were that if someone says “no”, or if it is clear that someone is no longer having fun, then you have to stop. Immediately. The older boy reluctantly agreed, but his face hardened as he glared at me for correcting him.

I jumped up and said lightly “Let’s practise consent!” We ran around inside the trampoline bumping into each other and I light-heartedly wrestled with my daughter trying to make her fall over. My daughter caught on quickly and shouted, “stop!” I immediately jumped backwards with my hands in the air and a surprised expression on my face. All the kids giggled. She shouted, “play” and off we went again. We practiced giving and withdrawing our consent in a playful way for a few minutes, before I made my exit and let them play together again.

I kept close watch the next few times the neighbours came to play. I had to enforce the boundary quite a few times with the older child, but gradually he came onboard (and if he didn’t, well, my daughter had a lot to say about it). I was extremely proud that my daughter, aged only four at the time, was able to notice when her friend’s boundaries were being crossed and was able to strongly advocate for her.

This had come about without me explicitly talking to her about consent. It came from modelling consent in our daily interactions. This is how I did that.

Model Consent With Your Kids During Daily Interactions

From when my children were young babies, I tried to explain to them what I was doing and asked their permission to wash them, to lift them, to change them. I would ask and then wait for a response. This could be as subtle as a wiggle or making eye contact, before proceeding.

This kind of contingent communication – where we attune to the signals a child is giving us and respond accordingly – gives even very young children the message that they are understood, and what they want and need matters and will be respected.

As my children grow older, I do my best to respect their choices. Before I override their own decisions, I try to look at my own motivations. Is this a necessary intervention to keep them safe and well, or is it a value judgement on my part? If the intervention is necessary, I try to bring the limit with connection and love instead of harshness and force.

Physical play is popular in our home, and it is a great opportunity to model and practice consent in a fun way. When we have rough and tumble play, family wrestles or pillow fights, we have a safe word – “jellybean” – which we use often to pause play if someone is hurt or needs a break. If anyone yells “jellybean”, we pause the play straight away until the person is ready to restart. This keeps the play safe and fun, and also gives my children the opportunity to set their own boundaries and have them respected by others. It is through play and modelling that my children have learnt how to negotiate consent.

Five Ways To Put Consent At The Centre Of Your Family

Tips for comfortable, confident conversations around consent:

1. Model consent by asking permission to kiss, cuddle or pick up your child, and warmly request that others do too.

2. Give your child as much control over their lives as you are safely able to do. This gives them the opportunity to make decisions, assert their opinion and have their choices respected.

3. Teach basic rules of consent amongst friends and siblings. No means no. Stop means stop. If someone doesn’t look like they are having fun, stop before they say “no”. You may have to step in to ensure these ground rules are followed at first, until it becomes natural.

4. Start young. You don’t need to talk about sex to start learning consent.

5. Practise how to say “No” with your child in situations when they might feel uncomfortable. This could start with saying “No” during physical play with a sibling and continue as they make decisions with their friends around staying out late, alcohol and other tricky situations.

Teaching children about consent is about so much more than sex education. It will help your child to develop good boundaries in all of their relationships, from friends to intimate partners to work colleagues and bosses. Not only do we want our children to stand up for themselves, but also to have the confidence and skills to stand up for others more vulnerable or less privileged than themselves, and to call out injustice and oppression wherever they see it in the world.

How do you model consent in your family?

This issue’s parenting feature was written by Pamela Quiery, Hand in Hand Parenting Instructor for Belfast, Northern Ireland. Find Pamela and learn more about her work online and in person here: handinhandparenting.org/instructor/pamela-quiery

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