BLOG-The Age of Consent
- Published: June 12, 2016
It was my favorite part of the evening. Night had settled in…the purple-blue darkness was adorned by a thousand flashing fireflies. They danced and skipped about the field; they lit the trees towering above us. I sat in the circle of a glowing campfire watching the sparking, licking flames. I sang to my children about twinkling stars.
My children…weren’t having any of this bliss. They were tired. They were hungry. They were sad. For hours, they had played hard…bouncy house, trampoline, swing, slide, go-carts…so hard that they barely touched the barbecue spread at our neighbors’ Friday night gathering. There had been talk of a movie but, when darkness fell, biting mosquitos sent people packing or into the protective cloud of the bonfire. My children were a good ten minutes past wanting to jump on their bikes, head home, and crash into bed. They told me thus—both boy and girl—in no uncertain terms.
My husband Jeremy was gathering family items so progress was being made toward retiring. Biding for time, I pointed out to my tired, tired children that the flame of a good fire was as soothing as a pillow. They remained skeptical—my daughter in particular—but they were revived by their father’s cell phone. Its alarm sprung suddenly heralding a fantastic celestial event. We looked up past the bioluminescence of cavorting lightning bugs to witness the serendipitous flyover of the international space station—a fast-moving planet-like point of light—a contrarian racing west to east across a field of heavenly bodies slow walking in the opposite direction.
The ethereal visitation passed. Satisfied, satiated, we turned our eyes back to earth, broke down our lawn chairs, and returned home.
Here was the tricky part of parenthood. I sang to my children to sooth them and entice them to linger, but I tripped into compliance…compelling my children to stay when they would much rather leave. This was a moment where compliance should yield to consideration. After all, the children know their bodies best, when they need to retreat and sleep. I must respect that.
Bodily integrity, autonomy, and consent…these weighty words have been hot topics of late. In particular this week, one lesson has been embarrassingly clear: Don’t force attentions on an unconscious person. Please note, though, that the word unconscious is completely unnecessary in the preceding sentence.
We are a complex people. We experience not just five senses; the number is more like 10 or 14. At birth, our senses are not graced with perfect organization. Oh, no. Sensory integration is the work of decades particularly the first two decades of our lives. Just when we think we have it down and worked out, along comes puberty to throw us for a disorientating loop.
While our children are working to master their own sensory selves, our society counsels parents like myself to discipline our children, to force them into compliance with expectations and societal norms. This advise seemed reasonable up until the point where I attempted to apply it. Then, compliance-based discipline revealed itself as dogmatic and even destructive. Certainly, the surest way to send a child into cycle—into a state of high distress and anxiety from which there is no easy exit—is to force them to endure stimuli that they find unmanageable. Instead, I grant my children the autonomy to sip experience in manageable proportions, to judge what is manageable for themselves. They encounter the world on their own terms…not through their parents’ well-rehearsed but untranslatable filter.
In the hope of sharing a fun experience with my children, I turned a deaf ear to their discomfort. Now, as parent, I may acting in my children’s interest. Still, I have to appreciate that I am not fully informed about what that interest is. Granting my children autonomy doesn’t mean I disengage. On the contract, granting autonomy means that I’m watchful, a witness to what my children seek out, what they avoid.
The more time I spend with my children, the more I see consent as an empowering parenting asset. Discipline has its place…just not at the expense of consent. We find freedom through discipline that Jeremy and I model, not make, for our children: The practice of listening and learning, of organizing and analyzing the shifting landscape of experience. We practice the discipline of empathy early and often so that, in the rushing current of our assorted needs and desires, not one of us sinks and drowns.
This week, I had to write about consent. It is a topic that deeply affects our community, our children, our quality of life. Like it or not, lessons in consent start at home. For my children’s sake, for the sake of those that fall in their company, I must be mindful. I know I can do better. When I ignore flares my kids send up, I’m modeling a behavior that’s fundamentally immature.
So what does mature behavior look like? For starters, admitting my mistakes.