Opinion: Babies Are Never Too Young To Give Consent

Babies Are Never Too Young To Give Consent

Written by Jen Lumanlan M.S., M.Ed., Co-creator of Right From The Start Roadmap

In 2018, Australian sexuality educator Deanne Carson suggested in a national news segment that families could set up a “culture of consent in the home” by asking newborns: “I’m going to change your nappy [diaper] now, is that OK?”

The backlash was swift.  One parent on Twitter exclaimed: “Babies can’t consent!  Period.  Telling people to ask consent before changing their baby is like a parody of the real argument.”  Another asked incredulously: “What body language cues indicate consent to change a nappy?”

As Carson herself said, ‘of course a baby isn’t going to respond: “Yes Mum, that’s awesome; I’d love to have my nappy changed,” but if you leave a space and wait for body language and wait to make eye contact, then you’re letting that child know that their response matters.’

Respect for children is a topic that a lot of parents find difficult, probably partly because our own parents said “You will respect me!” when actually what they inspired in us was fear.  

But if we believe that other adults deserve our respect we find ourselves in a tricky situation, because we have to define when our children ARE worthy of our respect.  Where is that line when they cross from not being worthy of respect, to then being worthy?  Is it when they move out of our house?  At some point in their teenage years?  When they can talk?  So if something terrible happens to them and they aren’t able to talk, do they never deserve our respect?

The folks who were so outraged on Twitter seemed to think that because a baby can’t answer with words, they can’t give consent — and thus we shouldn’t bother asking.  But research suggests that infants as young as three months understand when they’re about to be picked up, and tense their bodies in response.  By around 4.5 months old infants respond to their own name, and by six months old they can view videos of their parents side by side and hear the word “Mommy” or Daddy,” and look longer at the named parent.  So if even an infant can understand the basics of language, and we don’t know exactly when that understanding begins (because they can’t tell us), shouldn’t we treat them as if they can understand rather than assuming they can’t?

The real issue here is not whether or not we think the baby can understand us, but whether or not we think they deserve our respect.

The real issue here is not whether or not we think the baby can understand us, but whether or not we think they deserve our respect.  Our culture’s approach to this is clear: they don't.  After all, respect is earned — and our baby hasn’t done anything to earn it.  In fact, since our babies act in such clearly irrational ways, how could we possibly respect them?

The problem with this approach is that it goes back to the lesson we learned from our own parents: respect is a one-way street.  Then our child grows up thinking the same thing we did: that respect is something other people owe me; not something that I owe them.

When we see alarming levels of sexual assault in our culture, it’s easy to focus on protecting our child.  But when 430,000+ people are sexually assaulted each year, why are we looking at the best ways to protect the victims?  Who is raising the ~400,000 people who commit sexual assault annually?  Who is raising the people who create TV shows that portray women as objects of male sexual desire?  Who sees femininity as weakness, discouraging children from being interested in fashion, caring professions, and any kind of thinking that isn’t logical?  Who forces their child into the bath, to brush their new teeth, to change their diaper when they aren’t ready?

If we haven’t thought about how the ways we interact with our babies aligns with our values, chances are we are doing those things - because these ideas and methods are ingrained in our culture.  We think we need to exert power over our children because there’s only one alternative: that our children will have power over us.

If we want to go beyond raising children who won’t get assaulted to raising children who won’t assault; who respect others; who use and value all of their abilities - not just the ones traditionally associated with men and masculinity (like rationality and logic) — we need to interact differently with our children.

We may come to see that what we had thought was a choice with only one conclusion (they’re in charge or we are - and who would pick them?!) actually has a third option: nobody is in charge.  Because when we respect our children, they respect us (and I mean the real kind of respect here, not the kind that really means ‘fear’).  When they respect us, they’re more likely to want to cooperate with us, so we don’t need to try to control them.

If we play our cards right, by the preschool years they’ll help us solve family problems by asking us about our needs, and by explaining theirs, and then finding solutions that actually work for both of us.  But to do this, they need to believe that we care enough to hear their ideas, and that what they think matters.

And that all starts with consent.


Babies Are Never Too Young To Give Consent

Jen Lumanlan hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast, which distills scientific research on parenting and child development into tools parents can use to make decisions about raising their children.  She co-created the Right From The Start Roadmap, a comprehensive (and free!) guide to supporting your baby’s development (while not losing yourself in the process).