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I'm a big believer in the importance of consent and stressing it when kids are young. My (many!) goddaughter and/or nieces and nephews all are told by me they have the right to consent to what happens to their body. They can opt out of being tickled, they need to ask me consent before jumping on me they way they can hurt me etc etc.

Of course now that my goddaughters have gotten the idea of consent their trying to take it to the logical extreme by telling their mothers that they don't consent to anything they don't like. The problem is their still kids and some things still have to happen. They still need their baths, they still might get physically put into time out, they still need to get checkups etc. Most relevant to this question is that they both have that interacial curly hair that can be a pain to maintain and want it long but don't like the time, and occasional pain of dealing with knots, that comes with trying to keep it properly maintained. So of course they respond by saying they don't consent to having these things done to them, after all we keep telling them they need to consent to anything done to their body so why shouldn't they get to use that power here?

So what is the best way to explain why they are going to have to get their hair done, or whatever physical activity they don't like, even if they don't consent? How do you explain that consent is super important, but at their young age they still don't yet have 100% control over that right to consent yet?

Note: Just letting their hair become a tangled mess (and/or cutting it) or otherwise never doing the thing they don't want isn't really an option. I'm not the parent and I don't really get to decide how the parent's deal with such issues. I'm more interested on how to explain why they don't get to opt-out of some things despite the stressing of consent.

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I agree with Denis Hackethal that your nieces (+etc, omitted for simplicity) have reached a logical and correct conclusion here. The next step in the theoretical framework is Sometimes a person lacks the capacity to make decisions for themselves, and in some of those cases certain other people get to make decisions for them for the sake of the welfare of the aforementioned individual.

Probably the best example to start with are babies, both because it is extremely obvious that eg stopping a baby from eating poisonous stuff even if it really wants to is the right thing to do, and because that allows your nieces to view the situation from the side of the reponsible individual. Definitely don't stop there. Depending on what they already know of, a person with dementia, someone in a coma or a not-quite-adult teenager could be other examples of people for whom others make some decisions.

I'd stay agnostic on the question of whether I think that the niece herself is capable to decide for herself, unless there is an already-acknowledged-by-her case of where she wanted to do something, was prevented, and afterwards agrees that it is good that she was prevented (or she didn't want to do it, was made to, etc).

With this background settled, the response to "Mom violated my consent by bathing me against my will" is "A certain level of personal hygiene is essential, and your mom thought you weren't quite capable yet of making the right choices in this regard yourself. She loves you, and wants the best for you (which includes being reasonably clean), so she made you have a bath." If the niece complains that she totally can make proper choices regarding bathing, you can then offer suggestions how she can demonstrate this to her parents. (If you have the chance to talk with the parents about what they view as reasonable options in the matter, even better.)

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First of all, good on you for promoting the concepts of consent, we also believe firmly in that in our household.

With regards to your specific question on how to deal with issues of things which are mandatory, I find it greatly helps to present things as choices that the child can pick from. This isn't an absolutely perfect system as sometimes my kids will say they don't want any of those choices, but then I simply state that making no choice forces me to make the choice (in other words, not choosing is making a choice). As part of this, I can sometimes be amenable to alternate choices that they come up, provided they're reasonable.

To exemplify, in this question, I was having a lot of trouble with getting my daughter ready for school because she was choosing to not go. Now the consequences of that for her technically would be things like truancy, but she's not going to understand that.

So instead, I would evaluate what I really needed to get done as this answer suggests and also accept that I'm not going to get everything I want as this answer suggests. From there, I would offer her choices along with consequences from those choices:

  • Ask her if she wants to do the task herself or if she wants me to do it for her. In this approach I sometimes found that she just didn't feel like she could motivate herself to do it or other times she just wanted to spend a bit more time with. As she gets older, this choice will likely need to drop off in some fashion, but I don't think it should ever fully drop off as I think it's good to ask for help when you need it and I don't want to discourage that.
  • Inform her of what tasks needs to do to get ready and I give her a timer (I literally gave her a small timer from Target that she could set herself to 5 minutes so she could see the passage of time) and inform her that if she doesn't complete the task then I'll have to do it for her.
  • Inform her that if she's late then she'll have to go to bed earlier that night so that she's able to wake up for an earlier start tomorrow.

One of the key components I think with consent is understanding and being able to control consequences so to the extent I can, I allow her to do that as much as possible.


Also, you'd asked about consent and hair maintenance. I'm unsure how old your goddaughters are, but my daughter has thick, wavy hair and if it's not maintained regularly it quickly can get tangled. A few thoughts on this:

  • First of all, if you're brushing their hair and they say it hurts, believe them. It may be necessary to try a different type of brush or a different technique. With my daughter, I try and isolate where tangles are and hold that part of her hair away from everything else and brush it out. Doing it this way means that the hair isn't being pulled at her head, and is only stressed in the middle where I'm holding (so she doesn't feel it nearly as much). This is the brush we use and I don't know exactly why, but it apparently doesn't hurt as much when I use this one.
  • For my daughter, it helps to minimize her tangles by putting her hair into a braid before bed. You'll need to do research on best practices for curly hair, but the point is figure out what will work and explain it to them so they understand.

When it comes to consent, it's important to believe and accept someone's 'no'. So if you're being told something hurts, the validity of their 'no' is greater when you believe it and try and find alternative ways to complete the same task with hopefully no pain or at least less pain. It sounds like your goddaughters aren't yet at an age that they can do this research themselves, so that falls to you and the parents to do so and then present the choice as something to try.

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  • yes, these are often the cases where we find some sort of compromise. "you don't want to wash your hair today, but you have to agree to wash it tomorrow!" I've taught him that when we come to a deal we shake hands and then have to keep our word. So the next day when its hair washing time I can tell him "this is what you agreed yesterday, I'll try and make sure no water gets in your eyes and get the towel ready incase it does" etc.
    – R Davies
    Aug 15, 2023 at 7:55
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I would use 2 ways to make it clear that withholding consent is not always possible or a good idea.

  1. Withholding consent may have unwanted consequences. For example, if they don't consent to brushing their teeth, those teeth may rot and fall out of their mouth. Or as another example, their parents want them to look good when they go playing with friends, so if they don't consent to having their hair done, they can't go play with their friends.

  2. Everyone is bound by rules and you have to follow those rules even if you would like to withhold your consent. For children, those rules are put in place by people with authority, like parents and school teachers.

It would be good to discuss these narratives with the relevant parents, so that you can have a consistent approach when the situation arises where a child wants to withhold consent for something that needs to be done.

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I'm a big believer in the importance of consent and stressing it when kids are young. My (many!) goddaughter[s] and/or nieces and nephews all are told by me they have the right to consent to what happens to their body. They can opt out of being tickled, they need to ask me consent before jumping on me they way [sic] they can hurt me etc etc.

Good so far.

Of course now that my goddaughters have gotten the idea of consent their [sic] trying to take it to the logical extreme by telling their mothers that they don't consent to anything they don't like.

No, they're taking what you told them to a logical and rational (and correct) conclusion. That conclusion is usually only viewed as extreme when it comes to children, and almost always viewed as natural and important when it comes to adults (with some exceptions that are beyond the scope of this answer).

The problem is their [sic] still kids and some things still have to happen. They still need their baths, they still might get physically put into time out, they still need to get checkups etc.

Timeouts are a form of psychological abuse. And from how you phrase things, in your case they might be physical abuse, too.

Regarding baths, checkups and so on, many adults make the mistake of thinking that, without force, kids won't do certain things. That isn't true: they can be persuaded. If something really is a good idea, you should have no trouble persuading these children. For example, I remember being fully persuaded as a kid that showering, brushing my teeth, and even going to the dentist, which many kids dread, are all good ideas and necessary, and so then I did those things happily.

But even if you fail to persuade them: any damage caused by your coercing them is going to be greater than that caused by their not getting their hair done or not taking baths.

So of course they respond by saying they don't consent to having these things done to them, after all we keep telling them they need to consent to anything done to their body so why shouldn't they get to use that power here?

They're right; they should get to use that power.

So what is the best way to explain why they are going to have to get their hair done, or whatever physical activity they don't like, even if they don't consent? How do you explain that consent is super important, but at their young age they still don't yet have 100% control over that right to consent yet?

There's no way without contradicting yourself and losing their trust. Either they have 100% control over their right to consent, or all they have is conditional autonomy granted by an authoritarian – you.

Consent means nothing when there's no regard for consent in the first place. One only has regard for someone's consent if, whenever they communicate disagreement (verbally or non-verbally), one actually does stop, even if one thinks they're wrong.

It sounds as though you like thinking of yourself as someone valuing consent. But you really only value it when it suits you. If you truly valued consent, it would never occur to you to put these children in timeouts or force them to take baths.

To be logically consistent (which they have been and you haven't), you could tell them that what you really meant is that you value consent as long as you get to override it. But you're not going to tell them that, are you?

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    Can you provide some examples of how you, as a parent, have utilized the mindset you've outlined here? Aug 14, 2023 at 1:36
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    – Rory Alsop
    Sep 11, 2023 at 12:16
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As long as children are still minors, the parents are in charge... period. Consenting to being tickled is one thing. Blatant disobedience is something else.

Disobedience should have consequences and those consequences are not something they get to "consent" to.

Check the definition of "consent" and where and how it's used. While there are several, I think the one relevant in this case is:

permission or agreement obtained from someone or something having authority or power (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/consent)

Children are not authoritative figures or figures of power in any healthy family construct. That role solely rests with the parents, or those delegated to by the parents.

The parents have failed here and need to correct course immediately.

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    might be more helpful if you had some examples of what the OP should be doing instead, in your view, like some of the other responders have.
    – R Davies
    Aug 15, 2023 at 7:51
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    Your quoted definition of 'consent' is absurd – it would mean that someone with no authority cannot consent. Which means, by your own logic, that children could not consent. To anything. So all parents could ever do to children is coerce them. Parents would be the perpetual perpetrators and children the perpetual victims. Do you not see how you shot yourself in the foot there? Sadly, I don't have enough reputation to downvote your nonsensical answer into oblivion. Aug 15, 2023 at 8:32

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