“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.