“This isn’t working for me anymore, I want you to stop.” When I say this, I have revoked consent for the current situation. Maybe we can find a way to make it work, or maybe not. Either way, this, what we’re doing right now, what YOU’RE doing right now, I need it to stop, now. And I will use my power* to make it stop. Even if it makes you upset. Even if you want to keep going. Even if you don’t care whether I consent to this or not. And so you learn, that when I say no, I mean no.
*I will use my personal power, I will ask respectfully first and and insist, and if that doesn’t work, I will move in physically to prevent you from continuing. I won’t power over, I won’t shame, I won’t step on you. I will do my best to keep anyone from getting hurt.
Assuming that I’m within my own boundaries and I have ownership over whatever it is I’m setting limits on (my body, my stuff, common spaces in the house, enforcing established rules…) this is my current mantra with my kids. It feels awful and awkward and mean and like I’m making it too big of a deal. And so I double down and do it more. Because when I don’t, I’m enabling rape culture and power dynamics. When I don’t, I’m modeling to my kids that my needs don’t matter very much, that their feelings are more important. And when they’re older, and in questionable situations, I don’t want them to think that their needs don’t matter very much.
When I let my needs slip behind theirs, when I make exceptions to the rules, when I let them insist, when I give in, when I say no, no, no, no, okay just one – I’m trying to be nice and understanding and kind and reasonable. But I’m not in the long term. I’m compromising myself and my values, my needs, my own personal power in favor of their outward calm. I’m telling them that their tension, their hurt, their upset is a BIG DEAL and needs to be avoided. I’m telling them that their potential upset is bigger than my own power. That they need to avoid getting upset. That if they’re getting upset, then something is Very Wrong.
There’s a concept of consent culture that I’ve seen floating around, where parents ask their kids consent for everything, from the moment the kid can reasonably give it. I have a few issues with this, but the one I want to focus on here is, what’s the end goal? I don’t want to bash it completely, but I’m picturing this kid, fully grown. They’ve learned to ask consent for everything. Awesome. They’re not going to be raping anyone. Awesome. But they’re also going to be expecting to be asked consent for everything, and that really isn’t the case I’ve seen in the real world. What happens when someone else comes along and *doesn’t* ask their consent? What happens when they ask consent but the other person doesn’t know how to say no? And then, what about the times when consent was implied but never explicitly asked and now there is a victim? Is it all up to the “attacker” to ask first? Is the victim rendered a powerless victim as soon as the attacker doesn’t ask consent, no matter what ensues, questionable or not? I’m finding that the ability and power to say no is just as important as the habit of asking.
My 10 year old is irritated and is bossing my 6 year old around. He’s going along with it but I can see by the look on his face that this isn’t cool with him, and he’s not speaking up for himself. I ask him, “Is this working for you? Do you give her permission to boss you around like this?” and he slowly shakes his head no. And so I tell her, “this isn’t working for him, find something else to do.” And she gets angry and stomps and yells (which is why he isn’t speaking up for himself in the first place) and I listen to how outraged she is and I remove her from the situation and hold the limit. I give her space to vent on me instead of making my 6 year old bear the brunt of her big emotions. She learns that no still means no, even when it’s hard to say and even when the other person is intimidated by you.
When I notice the nonverbal cues and speak up for the kid who isn’t speaking up for himself, all sorts of magic happens. I show that it really is okay to speak up for yourself, the world isn’t going to end when it makes the other person upset. I show how to step in and help in a situation where it’s clear that one person is uncomfortable enforcing their boundaries on their own. I show that the nonverbal cues matter. I show my kids that I have their back. And How it doesn’t have to be an explicitly spoken no. All forms of no mean no. Look for the subtle signs. Even when one party is bigger and stronger or has more social power, that’s not an excuse to bowl over someone else’s needs.
I’m learning a lot through this revoking consent process. I’m learning that my own comfort matters, and is worth actively doing something to achieve, and that *gasp* I can even make my kids upset over it. I’m also seeing more clearly the converse – that self sacrifice and avoiding conflict don’t get you anywhere, that bending the rules and “being nice” and not upsetting people just keeps everyone miserable for longer. I’m gaining confidence in speaking up for others, not just myself. And I’m building my personal power as I see how much of a difference I can make.
When getting upset is Wrong and must be avoided at all costs, that sets a perfect stage for dangerous power dynamics. The upset powerless person won’t stand up for herself, won’t make a fuss, might not even validate her own upset feelings. The upset power-over person will be scared, panic, and see the other party as the one who is out of line. An upset power-over person who is panicking and blaming others is a perfect recipe for senseless violence.
My comfort matters. It’s okay to be upset. I have your back. Nonverbal cues matter. It’s okay to stand strong. Every no means no.
My favorite part of all this? Is how it’s all done with modeling and in ways that I’m completely in control of. I don’t need anybody else to buy in, I don’t need to lecture, nobody needs to understand anything. I am empowered to enforce my limits. I especially like how it models personal power and consent in a way that doesn’t require any cognitive load. It becomes hard wired into the limbic system and sticks around as intuition even in times of stress or weakness. There’s nothing to consciously remember. No just means no.
How we make space for the important stuff and ditch the rest.
In our family of 5, we have ongoing lists of things that need to be done, and important things that keep slipping through the cracks. If I want a sense of calm and peace in the way we go about our days, I need to prioritize where I put my energy and how I plan my time. I do want calm and peace. I want my time to be valued and respected. And I want to respect my kids’ autonomy along the way. I’ve been trying to balance it all and this is what I’ve come up with so far:
We have the Must Do things that we’re committed to on a routine basis, the spontaneous extras we want to do (like making cookies, going to the movies, inviting a friend over), and the extras we want to add to our commitments (that extra class, that big project, the weekly teatime).
Of course then there are the things that we’re spinning our wheels with, taking up our time, that aren’t actually that important to us. Like 10 hours of legos and minecraft and facebook and Harry Potter a day. Not that those things aren’t valuable, just maybe we don’t want to be spending all day everyday doing them.
Are you familiar with the big rock analogy? It’s the story of the glass jar that fits big rocks and gravel and sand and water, but only if you put the big rocks in first.
The Must Do list is our big rocks, the extras are the gravel, and the spinning wheels is the sand. The things we mindfully want to be doing, vs the sand that we find ourselves choosing in the moment as the path of least resistance. On our Must Do list includes things that everyone needs to do (eat), things that only a certain person can do (practice guitar) and things that it doesn’t matter who does them so long as they get done (feed the dog).
Every day, first thing, come the Must Dos. These are our biggest rocks, our highest priorities. Once all of the Must Dos are either done or scheduled into the day (I trust they’re going to happen – for example, we don’t have to be done with dinner by 10am, but we *do* need a dinner plan before moving on) we can move on to the Priority List. This is the list of extras that we want to do. The “Mommy will you…” list. “Mommy, will you…?” “Yes, as soon as we’re set on the Must Dos.”
When we’re on top of the Must Do list, getting it all done painlessly, we can add extra activities and commitments to it. When we’re not finishing the Must Do list, then we start simplifying our commitments and making more space for the stuff that matters most. In practical terms, this means dropping an activity, or decluttering the stuff that’s taking up physical and mental space in our lives, until we are really keeping up.
A note, all of these things are limits that I’m setting for myself. This is what I need in order to maintain my peace and calm. I am not willing to commit to paying for/transporting to extra activities until I know that the things that we’ve declared are the most important are being taken care of. I’m not willing to go out of my way for someone else until I trust that my needs are getting met too. Ooh, that’s hard to say without feeling selfish. But the more bandwidth I have, the more I have to give, and everyone wins. I’m not telling the kids what they can and can’t do – I’m showing them a window of what I am and am not willing to commit myself to. If they want a class that they have the means to make happen completely without my help, I won’t stop them from doing it. If they want me to drive them there however, then it needs to fit into my structure for me to say yes.
So that is the bare bones structure. I can imagine it getting adapted in all sorts of ways, depending on each individual’s personal priorities.
Here’s how it looks for us:
My kids are 22 months, 6 years, and 10 years old. My main priorities include quality meals, improving our circadian rhythms, a reasonably tidy house, hygge family time, and project time. And so our Must Do list includes things like eating, getting outside, having a meal plan, dishes, laundry, tidying, taking care of the dog, and the fun things that keep slipping through the cracks, like reading books together, one on one time with each kid, board games, family adventure days.
The ongoing Priority List has all the one off things. Some of them are boring, like returning stuff to the store or calling the dentist and others are fun like making cookies or going to the movies. Anything can be bumped up to Must Do status if it becomes time critical. For now, things on the Priority List only happen once the Must Dos are completely taken care of. As we build up routines and trust stuff will get done, I bet we will open up more space to mix in some of the extras during the day.
We also keep an ongoing list of Activities that we would like to add to the Must Do commitments. This is stuff like Scouts, Theater, weekly Poetry Teatime, and bigger projects like learning to sew a dress. The way I’ve been balancing Activities is, we start at 0. At the end of the day, when we’ve checked off all of our Must Dos, then we add (+1). If there are any Must Dos that we didn’t get to, we subtract (-1). If we get up to +5, then we’ve proven that we have space to add to our Must Do list, so we can add an activity (and reset to 0). If we get down to -5, we’ve proven that we’re overcommitted and so we drop an activity, or else clear out a big box of stuff that isn’t sparking joy anymore.
Future notes: I can imagine a more advanced version of this, where different activities have different weights based on the commitment involved, and where boxes of stuff also have weights. And activities and decluttering can be traded out as priorities become clear. You really want to do theater (4 points) but don’t have the time to add that many activities? Trade out one smaller activity you’re already doing (2 points) and help clear out two big boxes of stuff (2 points). We’re not ready for the extra complexity yet though. Another issue that’s coming up is, how do we make it fair when one person is pulling all the weight and others are just reaping the benefits? I don’t have a solid solution for that one yet that balances honoring the person doing the work without leaving behind the person who can’t find it in them to help out.
Sometimes I want everyone Out.Of.My.Space. It feels like everyone’s encroaching, everyone has an opinion, there are so many shoulds, and it’s not even my own anymore. It’s a canvas for the world to define. Then I picture myself spinning in a circle with my arms out, ripping the encroaching walls to shreds. Spinning with a burning torch, making a ring of fire to mark MY SPACE.
But then I remembered the picture book, The Conquerors. How the people who defended their country lost to the stronger general, while the tiny country that accepted the invaders with open arms not only stayed intact, they were able to spread the joy of their way of life.
I like people. I want more people in my life. I don’t really want to chase everyone away. I want to invite them in. What if my burning circle of fire isn’t so much a defense as it is a definition? This is MY SPACE where I am in control. In this circle, I am in charge, I am the only authority. Anything from anybody else is merely a suggestion, a comment card. Anyone with a raging, authoritative opinion clearly has issues because this is my space and they have no authority. I can easily brush them off.
And what about someone else’s space? If my space is mine, then their space is theirs. I don’t expect to have any authority. I can instead come in with genuine curiosity, to explore and see what works for them and learn and take ideas for myself. That feels really, really good. I don’t have to worry about stepping on anyone’s toes or being offensive. If someone takes offense, then it’s probably their issue and not something I’m doing wrong.
All that’s left is to show up in my own space and be authentic. Which is what everyone’s been saying all along but feels so hard, impossible, vulnerable when it’s a should – but now it feels easy. The hardest part is looking at and owning my own mess. But since I own it, I can clean it up (or not) on my own terms and not worry about being judged for it.
In the game of poke tag, the first player is ‘it’. They choose a ‘victim’ to poke. The goal is to be incessant and calmly annoying – not to hurt. The ‘victim’ can do whatever they want to get the first player to stop, but it doesn’t “count” until it’s a respectful request. So avoiding, poking back, yelling, ordering… Doesn’t work. It is more like permission for ‘it’ to be more annoying.
Once the ‘victim’ makes a respectful request for the poke to stop, ‘it’ gets to choose if they want to honor the request or not. If they choose to continue poking, now they’re on the ‘victim’s turf and that player can do anything they want to get ‘it’ to stop – I’m thinking of big scary lion rawrs, and running around. Once the ‘victim’ tags ‘it’ they become ‘it’ and can choose their ‘victim.’
This boundary game teaches that you and only you are in control of your actions. You are free to torment, even. You don’t have to be bound by other people’s limits and you don’t always have to be nice, but you are responsible for your actions. It also teaches that it is up to you to defend your own space. That respect is critical, but that you have the right to use force when necessary to defend your boundaries.
Do something other than poking. Mix it up. Try to catch the other person off guard.
Get suspenseful after you’ve asked ‘it’ to stop – surprise them with a big hug or kiss or tickle attack, or chase them all over.
In this game you get to be sneaky. One person tries to sneak something unwanted into the other’s possession. For example, my husband and his brother spent years passing a “smokey bar” of smoked cheese back and forth, sneaking it from house to car to luggage, even mailed in a model Trojan horse. Or it might be a shorter game, where I try to, say, put something down your shirt. In both cases you suspect that something is coming and do your best to defend yourself.
I love the freedom to torment the other party, and I love the practice defending your space.