The author with her son. Photo: Millicent Howard
Just last year, my then seven-year-old son told me he was going to marry me when he grew up. Flash forward to present day and not only has this eight-year-old done an about-face on the whole marriage thing, but he doesn't even seem to enjoy my goodnight kisses and cuddles anymore. He screws up his face, turns his head and pushes me away.
Whatevs, I figured. Too bad. It’s a mother’s prerogative to shower her children with unbridled affection and their duty to grin and bear it. That’s just the way it is.
Then, one evening, as we sat in front of the TV together, it hit me like a bombshell: That might be the way it is, but it's not the way it should be.
On the show we were watching, a man asked for (and received) permission before leaning in to kiss the leading lady. Aha, I thought! A teachable moment right here in front of my face! After all, like any responsible parent, I'd been engaging in an on-going discussion with all three of my kids about consent. The conversations aren't always easy and have even turned a bit awkward with my older two. But when it comes to raising well-rounded, happy and healthy kids, in my mind, consent is every bit as important as any other lesson a parent hopes to impart.
With all this in mind, I paused the show and turned to my son. “You see that?" I said. "You always have to ask for permission, just to make sure it’s okay.”
“But you don’t," he replied. "You kiss me all the time, even though I tell you to stop because I don’t like it.”
I was dumbfounded. I couldn't believe I'd been such an idiot. But even worse, I was a hypocrite.
Suffice it to say, this seemingly insignificant scene from an insignificant television program became a highly significant teachable moment. But I wasn’t the teacher in this scenario. I was the brash and presumptuous student.
I think of myself as a modern parent—a woke individual, if you will. Yet I never realized how hypocritical and dangerous my behaviour was until my eight-year-old son pointed it out to me in no uncertain terms.
Admittedly, when it comes to the way I parent, there are plenty of instances where I practice the “do as I say, not as I do” method. I regularly curse up a blue streak; I spend way more time than necessary on the computer; I’m not as diligent as I should be regarding household chores. But when it comes to something as important and far-reaching as consent—this is where I draw the line. In this particular area, it is imperative that I practice what I preach, so that my son will grow up without any confusion or haziness whatsoever about the concept of asking for permission and learning to accept “no” for an answer.
As a result of this huge-ass parenting epiphany, I made the conscious decision to tailor the way I now show my son affection, both publicly and privately. No more squirmy bear hugs and kisses. Definitely no more Love Monster (a high-stakes game that involves me chasing him down and tickling and kissing him until he begs for mercy). Because he doesn’t like it. And he’s asked me to stop. I’d prefer my actions and behaviour toward my children don’t cause conflicting emotions or feelings of distress—for them or me.
I love my son, and I never pass up the opportunity to tell him as much. When we walk together, he still casually reaches for my hand. When I tuck him into bed at night, I stroke his hair (he’s okay with this) and I tell him how lucky I am to have him as my boy. But now I always ask if it’s okay for me to give him a quick kiss. Usually he answers with, “no thanks.” I always listen, and maybe that's why lately, he's started sometimes saying "yes."
This article was originally published online in April 2018.