I’m currently trying to build time alone with my daughter into my schedule. Walks are ideal, because when we go for walks, she talks to me. Really talks. The questions that have been nagging her come out. The things I most want to say to her finally get said. And we relate on that deep level I’d always hoped I would with my daughter.
One of the things we talk about while we walk is consent. Not in a sexual sense, though I see that conversation emerging in the distance. We talk about how people treat her. About how I, as her parent and protector, do and do not allow her to be treated. About how she can and should insist she be treated.
I’ve broken up with the kids’ dentist. The clinic is very kid-centric, and has the coolest waiting room I’ve seen, hands down. The kids were always happy to go to the dentist. But what matters is the dental care, not the office, and they let me down. Worse, they let my kids down.
The year before last, Anya had some dental work done. Three fillings and an extraction. At 6. She’s a tense child under the best of circumstances, so they gave her something to relax her. It didn’t. She screamed and cried the whole time. The dentist kept telling her to be quiet. To stop crying. Kept insisting she stop screaming because she was scaring the other children. Kept telling her she had nothing to cry about. It took all I had not to scoop her up and carry her out of there. But he’d already drilled out the fillings, and I knew I’d never get her in another dentist’s chair if we left just then. The way he spoke to her turned my stomach, though. I fought back tears the whole time.
Later, after we were home and she had calmed somewhat, I told her she never had to go back there if she didn’t want to. But she decided she did want to go back, so I kept the kids’ follow-up appointment.
Again, she was terrified. I mean, why wouldn’t she be, after what she’d been through? She got through the visit okay, though, because she saw a different dentist at the clinic. But her fear had infected her brother, and he refused to have his teeth cleaned. Then, after he saw that Anya did okay, he wanted to try again — and was ignored.
I spoke up for him. I was ignored. And that was it for me. I told the front desk that we wouldn’t be back. And I told Anya that she could start going to my dentist if she wanted to.
“Does he ever yell at you?” she asked. Oh, my heart.
“No, sweetheart. He has never yelled at me. He has never hurt me. He’s a very nice man.”
“I want to go to your dentist,” she said. “I need a nice dentist.”
I told her that no doctor or dentist, or teacher — no one — had the right to speak to her the way that dentist spoke to her. That she may be little, but she is a person. That she had every right to scream and cry, because she was scared and in pain. Screaming and crying are perfectly acceptable ways to express those feelings. Especially when you’re six.
Last summer, on the second to last day of her swimming lessons, the swim instructor walked her out after class, long after the other kids in her class had gone. She was choking and sobbing and trembling. The teacher told me she’d gotten scared putting her face in the water, and jokingly asked Anya if they were still friends. Anya didn’t answer.
On the way home, Anya told me the teacher kept pushing her face in the water — water that was over her head — even though Anya was sobbing with fear. She begged me to let her skip the last swimming lesson. Up until that day, she loved swimming lessons, and even planned on getting lifeguard certification like her dad. No more.
I’d had my reservations about the swimming lessons, I must admit. They wouldn’t let me go back with her. That always sets off alarm bells for me. So when Kai’s turn at lessons came up, I was on high alert.
They let me go in with him the first day. I watched as one of the instructors made a little boy cry so much he nearly vomited. He was afraid of the water, so she made him hold on to her as she swam out to the far end and back with all the other kids. His mother finally pulled him out of there and left. I was ready to do the same, but Kai was so eager to swim. He begged to go back the next day. I was hesitant, but allowed it.
He said nothing after that next lesson, but when it was time to leave for class the following day, he refused. And that was it; he was done with the lessons. I don’t know what the instructor did to him, but he refused to go after that.
I told Anya all of this. I told her that those women had no right to treat her and her brother — any of those children — the way they did. I told her that while I do force her to do things that are scary, that hurt, like doctor visits and vaccinations, I only do them when needed to keep her and Kai safe and healthy. Otherwise, I respect their wishes. If they don’t want to learn to swim, they don’t have to. I told her that some adults feel that forcing a kid to do scary stuff helps them get over it. And I told her that because of adults like that, I still can’t swim.
I told her that it’s very important that she go to the dentist. That sometimes the dentist has to do scary, uncomfortable things — cleanings and fillings and x-rays and such. But that no dentist has the right to tell her not to cry when she’s scared. No dentist has the right to continue inflicting pain when she’s begging him to stop. I told her about the little boy at swimming lessons, and how I didn’t think the instructor had the right to keep swimming out to the deep end with him when his mom was telling her to let him out of the pool. Maybe that instructor taught hundreds of kids that way. Maybe she taught her own kids that way. But it wasn’t up to her to decide that this boy must learn that way — that was up to the boy and his mother, and they were saying no.
Consent isn’t just sex. Consent is the thousands of liberties adults take with children from the time they’re babies, because they’re bigger and think they know better. Because they can. I sincerely hope that by teaching Anya and her brother these things now, I’m giving them the tools to better handle consent when sex enters the picture.