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Teaching Consent to Toddlers - what it looks like in our home.

C is for Consent at How we Montessori Consent for toddlers

Teaching consent is a part of Montessori education, and it always has been. But what does it look like in our home? In some ways I've found it easy teaching consent to a toddler, "you don't have to give Grandma a hug, only if you want to". Other ways it can be difficult, how do I get a toddler to wash, brush, wipe or get in the car when they realllly don't want to?

When we teach children to respect themselves we are also teaching them to respect others. Respect is at the core of consent. We respect an infant enough to talk to them, to look them in the eye and seek non-verbal (cues) consent before we pick them up. For an infant we see these non-verbal cues many times a day and get to know our children, care for the infant is a collaboration with them. We would seek consent;

  • before picking the child up or moving them.
  • during bathing, washing, wiping, dressing .
  • during changing diapers or nappies.
  • before brushing hair, putting on lotion.
  • before feeding.

It is not a one-off, we continually seek consent. We learn the non-verbal cues when to stop feeding or for when they want to stay in place and concentrate or rest for just a little longer.

As time passes we are able to empower the child to take the lead in care of self activities like toileting, dressing and feeding. As a Montessori family we give our children skills and opportunities to practice care of self activities so that they are able to do more themselves. We don't have to seek consent for dressing as the child can dress themselves. The child has greater autonomy. Toddlers can be assertive and aggressively defiant. I know it can be hard but this needs to be respected. We can't disregard consent just when our young child becomes vocal, non-complaint or disruptive.

There can't be any shame or guilt given when the child says no. We empower the child so they know it is their right to say no. In the long term I believe the benefits are there, the child will make better decisions because they've learnt to respect themselves and others at an early age. They've had practice and experience at decision making, at speaking up for themselves. 

When I am seeking consent from my toddler I often get down on their level and speak directly to them. I feel this is a less threatening approach and takes out some of the power imbalance. But what about when the child says "no" to you brushing their teeth or hair, wiping after toileting, wiping their nose, or when they refuse assistance with tasks? I've found that getting frustrated, threatening or forcing are not good options unless it is a safety issue. 

We've all been there, when there has been a huge "no" when we really need to do something. I try one of these: 

  1. Include the task into routine or daily rhythm. If every day we brush our teeth before bed or brush hair after showering then generally the child will accept it. 
  2. Pick your battles? Brushing teeth is not optional but perhaps the child can miss a bath. 
  3. Teach natural consequences. This can be difficult for very young children and won't work in every circumstance. Perhaps the child is refusing to allow you to wipe their face, you can show the child their face in a mirror and say we can't go to the playground until your face is clean, and then follow through. 
  4. Role model and use positive peer pressure. Have everyone in the family brush their teeth at the same time. This positive or group peer pressure is so key for our toddler around showering/bathing, hand washing and brushing teeth. Once my toddler is brushing with his brothers I can seek consent to assist.
  5. Give alternative options. "Would you like Dad to brush your teeth", "would you like a shower instead", "can I get you a handkerchief" or give two options (the child must pick one) "would you like Mum or Dad to brush your teeth". We do not need for it to turn into a negotiation however there are times the child may feel they need to be the decision maker. My toddler went through a stage where he refused (did not give consent for) assistance with wiping after toileting, I gave him the option of showering which he would often choose.
  6.  Wait it out. What if the child refuses assistance, this happens in our home frequently, we can be patient and only step in when the child asks, wait it out. 

Most importantly we can also try to understand the reason behind the "no" especially if it is ongoing. Is there a bigger issue around the task, is the bath water too hot, do we need to add spray conditioner before brushing knotted hair, are we being gentle with teeth brushing, are the tissues too rough?

In our home teaching the strong and firm use of  "no" and "stop" and has been key. My partner and my older children (12 & 9 yrs) will seek consent before doing something but have at times needed reminding about our toddler and the use of the word stop.  A "no" or a "stop" at any time by children of any age, means we simply stop what we are doing and assess what is going on. Sometimes it is during play, sometimes it is while assisting the toddler. It doesn't mean "just one more push on the swing" or "just get your arm through here first"

Consent is so, so important during play. At all times children need to show respect and not force their play on to others. This includes seeking consent before tackling, roughhousing, wrestling, and picking each other up! Not only do we teach children to seek consent before play but also during play. This is even more important when between children there is a power imbalance like age or even height or strength. 

At some stage we must also teach our toddler to seek consent from others. The best way I've found to approach this is through good role modelling and even through practise, for toddlers this young it can also be appropriate to give verbal reminders "remember to ask Amy if it's ok to give her a hug".

Toddler consent at How we Montessori (2)

The book C is for Consent is excellent for toddlers, it's very straight forward, practical, and an easy read! Baby Knows Best is a great guide if you want to know more about consent with infants, it's one of my favourite baby books.

Let me know if this resonates with you. How do you approach consent with toddlers especially around those essential care tasks like teeth brushing or dressing?

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