When no means no: consent, respect, power and control dynamics in parent-toddler relationships

I’m in new territory with my little one now; we have entered the toddler phase. And as with all new phases, I’m grappling with learning the new rules we can all live happily by.

My current struggle lies around boundary-setting. Common belief says that toddlers need to know their boundaries, and will test if they don’t feel secure in them. It makes sense to me. But my personal belief is in respectful parenting. Issues of consent are paramount to me, and I am very much conscious of how the control and power dynamic that my toddler girl experiences now in her most formative years will impact her on a personal and societal level for the rest of her life.

So when does no mean no? One of the first words a baby will learn sometime around the age of one year old, is no. It’s easy to repeat and frequently heard. It also becomes an act of independence, defiance, self assertion, and individual power, when babies are learning for the first time what it means to be independent of their mother, and exercise their own powers over outcomes. At this time, no can mean no, but no can also mean other things – practising a sound, or seeking a reaction, for example. I feel like mother’s intuition can read the intent behind this new word, so this isn’t too hard to feel this stuff out.

Where the problems really start is here: There are some things that babies simply don’t want to do. They really do mean no – the intent is quite explicit – but it doesn’t mean that you can necessarily go with that. Brushing teeth, for example. Going to the doctors and being examined with a stethoscope. Being given a syringe of medicine in the middle of the night when their throat hurts from vomiting. Some things they just don’t like and you just have to do anyway.

This is where my heart really breaks. I try everything in my power to make my little one feel comfortable with the task at hand. I demonstrate on teddies. I explain what is going on, and why it is important for it to happen. I give cuddles and love and acknowledge the fact that she is upset and reassure her that I understand why. But if at the end of that she is still saying no, I am essentially going against her express wishes, and I hate that.

It’s not about soft parenting – not being ‘tough’ enough. It’s not that I am trying too hard to please her, or to be her friend rather than her parent – all the things the guidebooks would have you believe you are doing ‘wrong’ if you struggle to set boundaries.

You see the thing is, I know that my daughter really means no here, she is making her first attempts at asserting herself. And rightfully so. It’s something that every grain of my soul wants to encourage, and yet I am here, acting in the position of authority, saying – you must submit to my wishes, I know best, my desires come above yours. In doing so, for whatever the reason I do, I am denying her ability to consent for something to happen to her body, or not.

I don’t know what the answer is to this; I haven’t got this all worked out any more than the next parent, we are all just muddling through best we can.

All I know is that it strikes a blow deep at an emotional wound that is still raw for me.

And I’m glad it does.

For every moment that it keeps the issue of consent at the forefront of my mind, I am thankful of my own negative experiences, so I can do my best to change things for my daughter.

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