Asking Children for Consent, Permission, Their Opinion
Thoughts & Reflections
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If you’ve known about Montessori for more than about three minutes, there’s a high likelihood you’ve heard about respect for children, choice, freedom, language. In fact, there’s a strong chance these concepts were your introduction to Montessori. Telling this other person — whom I respect so much — what, when, how just doesn’t feel very good, our communication feels antagonistic, I don’t like the implications of this method of communication.
Communication is almost like magic, isn’t it? My word choice, tone, taking half a breath before speaking, all change the dynamic of our interactions. It’s not confrontational, negative, based in threats; it’s based in understanding, limits, and respect.
But there’s always the other side to the coin, isn’t there?
Just like magic, communication can tilt very easily into manipulation, distraction, wonder-disappointment-letdown.
Let’s connect the dots together.
Something really incredible was brought to my awareness even outside the Montessori sphere. In my mind it’s closely linked to the #MeToo movement, though I don’t have more than my memory to quantify that.
There was a shift in basic interactions toward asking children for consent, even within a family structure. Would you like a hug? Can I hold your hand? Would you like to offer Nana a hug or a handshake? Maybe later.
Like so many things, the logic here is clear, humbling, “of course!!!” So, let me get this straight: don’t talk to strangers, but go hug that one and sit on her lap and let her kiss you?? Like so many things compounded by the current pandemic situation, so children have hardly met this person, but I’m supposed to let them tickle me and LIKE it??! I do NOT think so.
We’re increasingly more respectful of children, even babies, and their completeness. You are not an acorn of an adult, you are a tree, a whole forest of wonder. Like so many wonderful things, sometimes we go too far, we can’t see the forest for the trees.
There are times when consent is respectful, when we cringe at our mneme — our unknown recurrent past, when we hear our parents voices speaking our of our mouths and think but where did THAT come from?! — when to do otherwise would be a betrayal of our love for this perfect being. There are times when seeking permission, consent, or even a child’s opinion is disrespectful, manipulative, abandonment.
“We’re increasingly more respectful of children, even babies, and their completeness.”
Let’s remember: we ask children questions only when the answer they give is appropriate. “Would you like to play on the freeway?” “Would you like a big bowl of sand for breakfast?” “Don’t you want to put your shoes on before you run out on the thin ice?” It’s a bit tongue in cheek, but sometimes we need a dramatic example to contextualize our less dramatic ones. “Do you want to go to bed?” “Don’t you want to put clothes on?”
Again, speaking of the current situation, we’re needing to take a lot of temperatures. It’s an easy, quick, even non-touch way to help keep everyone safe and healthy. Great news! Asking “Is it okay if I take your temperature?” isn’t a real question, unless we’re comfortable with the consequences.
I drive past a gym each day, and there’s a platform to step on, and a temperature within an appropriate range unlocks the door. If I ask, “do you want to take your temperature?” and a child says no, and so we leave and don’t go to gymnastics, maybe I’m comfortable that I’ve followed the child, I’m comfortable with that consequence, and I’m surprised that this child is hysterical that we’re not going to gymnastics. I haven’t helped them be comfortable with this consequence — maybe they didn’t even know about this consequence, couldn’t have forseen it — so the option wasn’t really a clear or fair one.
If I wanted to give a choice here, clearer options would be:
- In order to go to gymnastics, we need to take our temperatures. Do you want to go to gymnastics? Great! Let’s stay home together/let’s go take our temperatures. (Here, the consequence is going or not going to gymnastics, and I’ve decided this is up to a child. I’m comfortable with both options.)
- It’s a gymnastics day! Whose temperature should be taken first, yours or mine? (In this case, we’re going to gymnastics. A child has agency in deciding if they go first or second, which would be another way to phrase the question: Would you like to go first or second? That’s also a way to work on math language! Those Montessori layers, I’m tellin’ ya.)
- It’s time for gymnastics. Are you going to change your shoes or take your temperature first? This is just one example of giving options where either choice is perfectly acceptable. Two quick cautions. 1) It’s natural for a child to suggest a third option. I want to take my coat off first. I want to say hi to my friend first. If this sounds familiar for your household, gotta get up early to get in front of that! There are times when “why yes of course, taking off your coat is a great choice. Thanks for suggesting it!” There are also times when “carrots or celery” are the only choices I have available, so having a routine of “I suggest a & b, child suggests c” (even if a and b were very most favorites!) can set up a pattern that is disingenuous. This is not to say only a or b always must be rigid never any flexibility ever, but it is to say take note of any patterns. Know your child. Children need us to be in charge. Feeling like they’re in charge is scary for a three or four or even five year old, and manipulation is one of the ways we can tell a child is testing limits or feeling insecure. It can be their way of asking, are you still in charge? Phew, good, just checking. 2) Very similarly, we very easily sabotage ourselves here. I give two options, the child picks one, then changes their mind. Again — no rule is a good rule if it’s never broken! We change our minds all the time, and it’s natural for these full-humans to do the same. The “however” comes when we’re looking at patterns. What is this indicating to me? What is my child communicating? What am I communicating, and am I aware of it? The hustle just never stops.
There is space for options. There is space for opinion, consent, permission, I’m-the-boss-of-my-own-body. (which brings to mind an anecdote, which you’ll have to listen to the podcast to hear. I promise, it’s worth it!) There’s also space for the security and scaffolding of adult-child interactions. This can be respectful, both of each other and of what our “jobs” are: your job is to explore, to test, to interact, to discover, to wonder; my job is to keep you safe. Part of that is — yes, sometimes — being in charge. Not everything is a discussion item. This isn’t disrespectful.
Let’s look at some unintended manipulations together.
- What do you want to wear today?
- We’re going to go to the doctor now, okay?
- Please don’t hit your sister.
- You’ve had a bm. Can I wipe your bottom?
- 1…2…3… (or repeating a child’s name, or increased severity in tone, or any other delay in asking a child’s permission for kindness, listening, or adherence to any other previously agreed upon social contract)
Any of these sound familiar? In case no one has ever told you, here’s a PSA: In Montessori, in everything with children, in everything with humans, there’s the hard and fast steel concrete diamond rules we never break and we always do it this way… and then there are the ten thousand reasons it’s absolutely appropriate to NOT do it that way. For those of us who like rules and like knowing what to do, it’s hard, right? Hang in there.
“What do you want to wear today?”
Okay, so this one was easy to start with cause it’s a natural question, but also it’s a great place to set us up for success. You absolutely could ask this question! Wait, what?! Here’s the caveat — the burden is on us. As always.
You could ask this question if your child’s choices are prepared in such a way that they can choose anything in front of them. Maybe there’s a drawer of bottoms and a drawer of tops and everything is an option. Maybe you’re diligent about only having two or five choices available, everything fits and is clean and seasonally appropriate and matches in a way you’re comfortable with. Maybe you have a high tolerance for mixed patterns.
On the other hand, if your child’s closet looks anything like mine, this is a lot. If you don’t want your child to pick the sparkle velvet dress they chose for their birthday, this is a lot. If half these things don’t fit anymore — mind you, always the most favorites are the ones they grow out of first, right? — but we haven’t done a closet harvest in a while, this is a lot. There’s a strong chance one of us will be yelling and/or crying and it’s just generally unpleasant.
Is this a true question? Is this an overwhelming decision for a child? Has the pendulum swung too far too fast and until yesterday I was in charge and today the world is their oyster? Too much too soon isn’t better than no choices, and can be frustrating and discouraging for both children and adults.
If you’re not in a position to do a total overhaul to your child’s wardrobe — I certainly don’t have the bandwidth for anything resembling that these days — opinions can be sought in more meaningful ways:
- Would you like to wear a long sleeve or a sweatshirt today?
- Are you going to put your sneakers on or am I / in the car or here / before or after breakfast / or your slip-ons?
- We need a top and a bottom. You can pick one, and I’ll pick the other!
- Any of these three shirts would be good for the weather today. Would you like to close your eyes and surprise yourself, or is there one you’re particularly fond of?
When someone else does something for me, or outlines a process, it always seems so simple, and then reality happens. Maybe none of these options work for your situation. The goal isn’t to memorize these four and choose the right one, the goal is wheels turning to find just the right one that works for you.
“We’re going to the doctor now, okay?”
Hopefully the manipulation here is crystal clear, but in case it isn’t, great job on making a clear statement, oh and then we shot ourselves in the foot with asking for permission. It’s the same as “It’s really cold today. Can you please put your coat on?” Is it really up to the child to say, no that’s not okay with me? If I know my child is going to say yes, asking permission in a disingenuous way is really just sugar-coating. The doctor/school/grocery store/coat/whatever is not a punishment. This isn’t a bad place. It’s okay to have a schedule, and to need to keep it. We give space and time and respect to the child, we don’t leave EVERYTHING up to them. If they have an issue in need of medical intervention, if they truly have a choice regarding wearing a coat in sub-zero temperature, the consequences of not being the adult here are catastrophic!
“This can be respectful, both of each other and of what our “jobs” are: your job is to explore, to test, to interact, to discover, to wonder; my job is to keep you safe.”
There are a few issues with this false question. If I have set up conditions that when I ask a question when there is only one right answer, how can I expect a child not to try to read between the lines, seek a clue for the “right” answer, engage in people-pleasing behaviors, access their own opinion and be comfortable voicing it? Direct communication is kind, in that it is clear and not reliant on someone else decoding our words, guessing our real goals, or sharing our background, values, and mood of the moment. If a child wants to keep playing — let’s substitute “park” for “doctor” in this example — and we can be flexible or responsive, when we phrase something with inflexibility in this same manner and we need a child to stop playing, or now we’re late to something important because we must Follow the Child, I’m not saying what I mean, a child is in charge, there is power and worry and frustration — I am not a trustworthy adult.
In our desire to be kind and respectful in our communication, we can overcompensate with avoidance of no, asking permission when there doesn’t need to be, and indirectness. We’re really asking a lot of the listener, here — read my mind. I don’t want to risk hearing no, so I won’t ask directly. An adult I always knew I could trust says, “No is just as good an answer as yes.” Respectful boundaries and practice early on setting those boundaries — and the learning of when it’s not setting a boundary it’s disrespectful, or inappropriate, or manipulative — is right in line with consent, permission, and opinions. Children learn through seeing a model, and we’re that model. Direct language is a kindness.
“Please don’t hit your sister”
All joking aside, please is a request word, it’s a question. “I don’t feel like it, I’m gonna keep hitting,” wouldn’t be followed by, “oh well, in that case, by all means.”
Yelling, shame, or negativity aren’t required. “I hear how mad you are. You may not hit.” “I don’t let anyone hit you, I cannot let you hit me/anyone else.” “You can choose to treat one another with kindness or you can choose to play separately for the time being.” (This one has to be followed up with a change in interaction or adult support to play separately.)
When we say “please” but it’s not a request, we diminish our trustworthiness, and the value of the word.
This is closely related to this bonus example for anyone who’s still reading:
“Why are you hitting?”
This phrase is quite natural until I start to be mindful of the consequences of my language. Is there any answer that a child could provide that would result in my “Thanks for clarifying, carry on.” Absolutely not. When a child feels unheard or angry or tired or frustrated or pushed to the limits such that the only response is physical, we might be inclined to talk through those feelings with them. “What made you so mad you felt you needed to hit?” “I can tell you’re really upset. Let’s find somewhere safe to scream together until you are ready to talk/hug/reconcile.”
While sometimes physical responses from a child can be that lizard brain reflex — a frustrated pre-verbal toddler biting — they’re also sometimes a child seeking limits and problem solving. If I have consistently sent the message that I — the adult — that I’m not in charge, well, someone’s gotta drive this bus and I guess it’s the four year old. This is fear and unknown to a child, and access to upstairs brain goes right out the window. There is a problem and I’m going to fix it the best way I know how, and that might be a physical response. We can be the most present, respectful adult around, but unless we’re aware of what we’re communicating and how we’re doing so, we’re — in all likelihood — conveying messages we’re unaware of.
In case it needed to be said: you can follow all the adult rules and do everything “right” and still encounter hitting. You have not failed.
“You’ve had a bm. Can I wipe your bottom?”
Are you noticing the pattern yet? Is this a real question? Of course we want to help our child learn, in every interaction, particularly with the people who love them most, that their body is their own. We want them to feel confident and capable.
We have a responsibility when tending to a child’s toileting and other most basic needs to look out for them, to be that safe, secure, gentle and immovable scaffolding. “I need to wipe your bottom. It will be a bit cold.” “You can wipe, and I will make sure everything is tidy. I can see back here!” “Would you like to wipe using the mirror or shall I help you?” and, of course, aiding children to independence here. Helping a child see the value and importance in things that aren’t as appealing, whether that be regarding toileting, nutrition, sleep, any of our basic human needs. Yes, maybe if you use a floor bed your child will seek rest when their body needs it, or maybe they’ll be like an infant, baby, toddler my mom knew who didn’t want to rest for fear of missing out. (on the podcast I share who this person was, but I bet you can guess) I cannot be trusted to not choose ice cream if it’s on-offer, even when I know how I never feel good after I eat it — my skin, digestive system, and emotions do not love when I eat ice cream, but the heart wants what it wants. It’s an act of love when those around us do what needs to be done, rather than just what makes us happy.
Finally, this classic.
I didn’t hear this a lot growing up, but I do recall that little-kid-sneaking-a-cookie thrill sensation of wondering… and then what?! Reflecting now, I’m sure this was only employed to buy themselves time to also figure out, then what?! I’ve done all the rules, but she still has a mind of her own, hmm, imagine that?!
As an educator, it’s my job to make sure this isn’t a thing. We don’t threaten children. Consequences are immediate and crystal clear, since they’re simply what happens because of my behavior, not punishments. The consequence of listening to your friends is that, well, you have lots of friends. The consequence of ignoring them is that maybe people don’t really want to play with you. I have training in how to communicate with children, and I’m literally being paid to do this.
Families, on the other hand, have done precisely what I’ve done all day — given the better part of their day and a lot of their bandwidth — and now we’re all hungry, tired, and around our most favorite people who know how to push our buttons and will love us absolutely no matter what. I don’t have to be on my best behavior, and you have to love me anyway.
“When we say “please” but it’s not a request, we diminish our trustworthiness, and the value of the word.”
Personal and professional, home and school are very different spaces, appropriately so. Can you imagine needing to discuss Q3 earnings, wear a suit, or have “virtual dinner” over Zoom with your family at home? Sounds silly, but — as is often the case — we forget what is so natural when it comes to our children.
At home, when we’re all hungry and tired and have used up so much of our best behavior in public settings, it’s not all that surprising when we speak or act before we think. Since in this very moment we’re not in the middle of a 1-2-3 style countdown (but if you are go ahead and attend to that first, this information will still be applicable once the dust settles) let’s, again, play this out.
So, I don’t mean what I say? You have until I get to three, and then what? If it’s something so big there would be serious consequences to not listening, we have no space for 1 2 3. If it’s not that big of a deal, I’m backed into a corner of either doubling down on something that isn’t that important, or giving up, and then I’m in a position where my child doesn’t listen when I do mean it. It’s kind of like time-out — if we were cooperative enough for time-out to be effective, we wouldn’t need time out. If counting to 3 ensured a child took me seriously, they’d know I mean what I say every time I say something.
Oh shoot. There it is. It all comes back on me. I have to mean what I say, and do my best to follow through each time. It’s not safe to jump off the couch, let’s find somewhere safe to jump instead. It’s time to go to school. These chemicals are unsafe, you may not use them. It can feel like an insurmountable Everest, perfect or broken, I’ll never get it right so why even try.
But isn’t it wonderful? We’re going to make a lot of mistakes along the way. We’ll say things and hear our words after there out there in the world and grimace. We’ll think we nailed it and watch the fallout from our words like it’s the cake from Sleeping Beauty, a beautiful monstrostrous mess. We’ll nail it, and have no idea why. The best thing about our interactions, our work, our love for children, is there will always be a chance to try again.
If children learn from us, and we want them to be comfortable making mistakes, isn’t it appropriate that we make lots, too?
Written by:Charlotte Snyder