Last year, I saw a post on Facebook from one of my friends that was talking about an article he had read on teaching babies consent by asking them permission before changing their diaper. The writer of this article was an Australian sexuality expert and her remarks have met much criticism.
My friend, like many others (including myself at first), thought the concept was pretty out-there to say the least. I mean firstly, babies can’t talk, so how could they give consent to anything? And secondly, a diaper change is a necessity so it’s not really something that is up for debate. However, one thing that she said in her article really stood out to me.
She explained that even though babies cannot verbally give their consent, she believed it was important to establish a “culture of consent” in the family from birth. Obviously, the word “consent” is not to imply that there is anything sexual about diaper changes. But the expert points out the importance of using consent language and making eye contact to teach our children even from a young age that we are:
2. That we acknowledge them
3. That they are included in the process
4. That their response matters
Children, and babies especially, are often given very little autonomy or respect, if we really think about it. They are often seen as little beings that, as babies, are extensions of their parents. We spend the rest of their childhood/teenage years attempting to control them and their behavior. We do this all with the best of intentions, trying to teach them and mold them into good humans.
But all this doesn’t allow much room at all for respect. So how can we as parents begin to do that? And what do I even mean by this? Imagine with me for a second.
Envision being extremely old. So old that you have become very sick, and you have lost your ability to care for yourself or even talk. You completely rely on someone to be your caregiver from bathing to feeding to changing your adult diaper. Imagine how it would feel to go through all those processes with no dialogue and no information about what was about to happen. None or very little eye contact, but instead being moved around and/or held down like a doll.
For me, that personally sounds like a horror movie. I would want to have an idea of what was coming next, and to feel like even though I couldn’t say anything, that my caregiver was not only aware of my needs but aware of ME.
So often we do just that and only go through the motions during this and other caregiving acts with our babies. Another day, another five million diapers. But instead, we can be fully present and give our babies the dialogue (ex. I’m going to wipe you now), and therefore respect, that they need.
It’s not about them giving permission, because these caregiving acts are point blank necessary. It’s about including them and treating them like we would want to be treated. And from personal experience, I have seen that when I have dialogue and make eye contact with not only my daughter but other babies that I have taken care of, diaper changes are much less of a fight. And I have learned that this respectful mindset carries over into other things besides diaper changes.
In some instances, with toddlers and older children, asking permission is definitely necessary, such as with physical affection. And even young babies give cues that they like or don’t like something that we do. We just have to observe and listen and respect.
This concept of treating babies with respect from day one was taught by Magda Gerber, who is the face behind RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers) parenting. RIE focuses on allowing our children to have autonomy and an active role as much as possible and treating them with respect always.
Diaper changes are a part of this philosophy but it also includes many other things we can do as parents, such as telling our children before we pick them up or any other physical act that we do to them such as putting on jackets or shoes. Or simply informing them about where we are going, or saying, “I will be right back” when we leave the room. RIE is all about stepping into our child’s shoes and treating them how we would want to be treated. After learning about this way of parenting, my outlook completely shifted, and I found myself actually (shockingly) agreeing with the sexuality expert.
I’ll admit I used to see my daughter in a completely different way before I learned about RIE. So often as moms we forget that our babies are their own people. I still do all the time. I carried my daughter in my body for nine months and she was a physical part of me. She was completely dependent on me for survival. And then when she was born, she needed me for what seemed like every second of the day and night.
Now that she’s older and can talk (and give some pretty sassy attitude) it’s easier to see her as her own individual person. But now I’ve realized that she was her own person even from her first breath; still completely dependent, but from the moment of her birth, separate. My baby is a whole human NOW, not when she “grows up.” As such, she deserves my respect, which I learned through RIE that I can give her now and throughout life.
Parenting was and is such a steep learning curve for me. Sometimes I am truly not the best at being respectful and I forget or just don’t have the patience that I should. And I take some stuff from RIE and leave some stuff out. I’m learning every day and still messing up a ton, but I’m hoping these little things will one day make a difference.