Consensual Parenting Starts in Infancy

Consent and body autonomy are guiding principles for my parenting. These can seem like big, complex topics that aren’t relevant to a small baby, but it’s important to me to lay the foundation for a consensual relationship with Dylan here in his infancy. In as many ways as possible, I want to give Dylan control over his own life and his own body.

As young as Dylan is, there are many choices I make about his body. There are some things I clearly will do, like vaccinate and treat him for illnesses. There are other things I clearly won’t do, like cut off parts of his body (“circumcise”, if you prefer). I find joy in doing things like protecting his skin from the sun, since I see one of my roles as caretaking his body until he’s old enough to take over.

Another strong component of building our consensual relationship is paying attention to how Dylan communicates. If I am tuned in, he tells me what he likes and doesn’t like, what he wants and doesn’t want. When I’m playing a game with him or singing a song and I see him avert eye contact and turn his body away from me, I don’t turn it up a notch and try to recapture his attention. Instead, it’s time to bring the game or song to an end. When I see him make this one subtle little mouth motion, I know that he’s hungry and I feed him. Every time I am able to understand what he needs and helpfully respond, I show respect for his body, his needs, and his preferences.

In our everyday interactions, I move and manipulate Dylan’s body a lot. I pick him up to move him from room to room, I change his diaper, I dress him, I bathe him, etc. Many of these aren’t entirely optional, but there are three things I do that I consider crucial to building the kind of relationship I want to have with Dylan:

First, I always let him know when I’m about to do something to him. I think it must be really strange to be a baby, intent with some activity, and then unexpectedly whisked into the air by huge hands you never saw coming. Before picking Dylan up, I always get his attention and make sure he notices me.

Second, I give language to the things I’m doing. Whether it’s picking him up, carrying him around, changing his diaper, or whatever, I’m talking the whole time and naming his experience.

Third, I stay flexible about what has to happen, what can wait, and exactly what form things will take. For example, if Dylan has a dirty diaper, I am going to clean him up. But if he’s upset and not wanting a diaper change, I have options. I can consider waiting 5 minutes to see if he changes his mind. I can try to make the experience enjoyable through play. I can only do the clean-up and then leave him naked, cutting the unwanted experience in half. The specific solution doesn’t matter. What matters is that I stay in the moment, conscious of and responsive to Dylan’s needs and desires.

All of these things are small and effortless on my part, but they have a huge payoff in fostering the trusting, cooperative, consensual relationship I want with Dylan.