Teaching My Sensory Seeker Child What Consent Means
When people first meet my son, Rowan, they often comment on how affectionate he is. He will hug people he just met, blow kisses to a perfect stranger, and say, “goodbye, I love you!” to an airplane. Given just a few minutes in a room with you, he’s likely to sit on your lap and snuggle. Although he doesn’t currently have a diagnosis related to sensory processing, I strongly suspect there is one in our future. Even without a diagnosis, it is clear to me that he is a sensory seeking kid.
When Rowan bangs toys on a table, slams blocks together with great force, or knocks over towers built by himself, other people tell me he’s “all boy.” I’m terrible with confrontation so I don’t usually say anything, but I’m pretty sure his need for sensory feedback while playing has nothing to do with the fact that he has a penis. Boys (and girls) are all different. Their actions depend on their individual brains and personalities, as well as the influence of their families, friends, peers and the broader culture in which they are raised.
In light of recent events surrounding the man nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States, I’ve been thinking more and more about how I teach Rowan consent, why it is important and why his sensory seeking presents some extra challenges. I’m his mom, his primary caregiver, his safe place, or as my therapist puts it — his person. When we are together, he doesn’t just want to be with me, he wants to be touching me as much as possible. If I’m sitting, he wants to be on my lap. If I’m standing, he wants me to hold him. Since he was born, we’ve practiced teaching him about body autonomy. He doesn’t have to hug or kiss anyone, including his parents, if he doesn’t want to. If we are tickling him and he says “stop,” we do so immediately. We have given him that respect all along. And as he has gotten older, we have had to start asking for that same respect back.
The times that really make me ponder his future with learning consent revolve around bedtime. Right now, my husband or I lay down with Rowan when he’s falling asleep. On my nights, if he’s having a particularly difficult time settling down, he will touch me. He will try to play with my lips, stick his finger in my nose or ear, or even grab some of my hair and twist it around his hand. I say no. I move his hand away. I tell him that it hurts me and I don’t like it. And he tries again. I tell him again. Sometimes I have to gently hold his hand against my chest to get him to stop. Over and over I tell him. No. This is my body. I don’t like that. Stop. It’s hard to keep up sometimes. There are nights when I’m sure he would fall asleep faster if I just let him have that comfort measure. But I don’t. He needs to understand that it’s not OK for him to touch someone’s body in a way they don’t like. Even when that someone is his person.
I know I won’t always be his person. He will develop other relationships and find other safe places. And this is why I worry and why I work so hard to remain consistent. Rowan doesn’t get it yet, but I believe he will. So one day, when he is with a friend, acquaintance or even romantic partner, if he reaches out and touches them for any reason in a way that they don’t like and they tell him no, he will stop. He will apologize. He will do better.
I also teach him this to protect himself. He needs to know that if someone is touching him in a way he doesn’t like he can say no, loudly and clearly, and as many times as it takes. The truth is that the perpetrators of these crimes are statistically far more likely to be male, but being male does not protect one from being a victim of sexual assault.
Today, Rowan took a nap in his bed with his coat on. He would’ve liked to sleep with his shoes on too, but that crossed a line for me. When he came home from school and I asked him to take off his backpack, coat and shoes he said no. I tried to assist and he said, “leave alone” so I did. Eventually he took off his backpack and I took off his shoes. But his coat stayed on through his nap and until he was ready to take it off.
I don’t claim to be an expert on teaching consent, but I’m an expert on Rowan. As his person, I am where he goes for comfort and I’m also where he tests boundaries. I’m the first line of defense in teaching him how to respect everyone’s bodies, including his own. It’s a really hard job. I don’t want to deny him the comfort of that sensory feedback, but I can’t use that as an excuse to let him cross that line. So we will keep working on it, talking about it, and learning together.
Getty image by Shinyfamily