THE BLOG

Goodnight Kisses and Consent: The Early Lessons

02/03/2015 02:32 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015
karen kavanagh photography

Our oldest daughter finally thinks kisses from dad are wholly unnecessary. She doesn't think this all the time, just when I'm asking her if she has a goodbye kiss at school or maybe before I drop her off at her Girl Guides meeting for the week.

First it was our jump hugs in the gym and now it's goodbye kisses. Next it might be pulling the sheets up for her at night or filling her water bottle for her when she has a cough.

That's not how commercials and movies about engaged parents work out. You're always getting goodbye kisses and you're always hugging each other -- you bent down on one knee, her smiling with her head tilted slightly to one side with a big, mostly toothless, grin on her face.

She doesn't make a scene, she doesn't hit me in the face. She doesn't tell me I'm smelly. She just says "no thank you."

And as much as I wish I could get my goodbye kisses, as great as I feel when we leave each other on such a high note, her telling me "no thank you," is a sign that maybe we're doing things right.

Because what we can teach her when she says "no thank you," is that her voice is an important one and the only one that should speak about what does and does not happen to her body. It's called consent, and it's important to respect the voices of our children at an early age so they know consent is important. And necessary.

There's a fairly common sentiment that expressing love through kisses and other physical displays like hugging or back rubbing is the best way to show our children how much we love them. There's a notion that no matter what, we need to express our love for them outwardly. That children who live their lives void of goodnight or goodbye kisses might grow to feel less loved.

So we offer up all the hugs we can possibly think of offering up and are gleeful when our kisses magically heal fake wounds on knees. Parent kisses become the lifeblood by which our children sustain life. Unconditional kisses, unconditional hugs. But unconditional physical affection doesn't necessarily equate to unconditional love.

But teaching your child that they're the ultimate rulers of their own bodies is as great a display of love as anyone parent can give a child.

When we used a cry-it-out sleep training method because our oldest daughter spent three hours a night screaming in our arms before she'd go to sleep, we did so with the understanding that we were helping teach our kids how to sleep.

"It's a lesson we need her to learn," we'd say. "We're not abandoning her, we're supporting her by teaching her this valuable life skill called sleep."

We constantly went back to reminding ourselves that as we sat on the edge of our bed waiting for the five minute mark to pass so we could go check on her. In a few days, she was sleeping through the night. This method benefited the whole family. We were sleeping better and so was she. We woke up happier in the morning and went to sleep in a better mood at night.

Why wouldn't it be just as important to teach them they are the ones who make decisions about their own bodies? Why shouldn't the parents have to learn that there are things we shouldn't be doing in order for our children to learn another important life skill -- that their voice is one that should be listened to. It's important too, because often we ask them to stop grabbing our necks or jumping on our backs. When we tell them to stop, we mean stop, It's like for like, if we expect them to stop, they need to know we will stop too.

"I know you're asking me to stop, but I love giving you so many kisses," isn't teaching them love it's teaching them that our love of giving kisses is more important than their right to refuse them.

Do I sound like I'm overreacting? Probably to a lot of people, yes. I understand that parents want to make sure their kids feel loved. I get that kisses are an excellent way of showing that. I'm not suggesting you give one another a courteous wave in the morning and then spend the day apart from one another. I full on condone meeting requests for hugs and kisses and helicopter twirls. I understand my privilege and the privilege of my girls. I understand that with some kids, given that not all children grow up under the same circumstances, it may be the absolute highest order of importance to kiss and hug at every turn.

And there's certainly the expectation that we need to make decisions for our kids for a time. We listen to our doctors for vaccinations, we make sure we clean out cuts and scrapes they get whether they like that or not. We go to the dentist, we provide them with services they need to live. But we need to be listening to them and when they're personal safety isn't at risk, we need to adhere to their requests.

I still give kisses on the head to my sick kids and still open my arms when they come running at me at the end of a long school day. It doesn't always feel natural to stop a game of tickle because games of tickle are fun, but it not feeling natural is the problem. It should feel natural to listen to our kids.

We can also show affection through reading stories, through watching a movie together, through building a LEGO tower or turning a cardboard box into a castle.

The small inconvenience of not being able to give a goodbye kiss is nothing compared to knowing my daughters understand how important their voice is.

We have a pair of 13-year-old girls who are trying to make consent education part of the sexual education taught in Ontario schools. It's an addition that I think is invaluable and long overdue. But before our kids even get there we can start teaching them that consent is important by listening to what they ask of us when it comes to their bodies. These things were not taught when I was in school and this is not a "we all turned out fine," argument. Consent needed teaching back then and needs teaching now. Consent is also not a lesson kids need to hear from their teacher once and then never again.

Which means stopping the tickle game when they ask us to stop the tickle game and not giving hugs if they've asked us to not give hugs. It doesn't mean giving up affection for our children. It just means showing affection to them in more ways than kisses. I'm extremely happy that both of our daughters still regularly ask for their nightly kisses and hugs and that they both run up to us unexpectedly to deliver one of their own. We give that consent and we take that consent every chance we get. The frequency of kisses is up to them.