Now and again I find myself thinking ‘either the world has gone mad or I am going crazy. Such was my reaction back in May, when I read an article about Australian ‘sexuality expert’ Deanne Carson, who argued that that parents must ask permission from their babies before they change their nappies[i].
Apparently Carson told viewers of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that it was important to establish a ‘culture of consent’ within a family, starting at birth. According to sexuality educator Deanne Carson it is imperative that babies are asked for their assent before their nappies are changed in order to provide a ‘model of compassionate communication’.
In this instance, I was not the only one who was taken aback, when I heard a so-called sexuality expert arguing that parents should ask their babies for their permission to change their nappies. Many commentators regarded the very idea of babies consenting to having their nappies changed as something of a joke. They responded with hilarity to Carson’s suggestion that babies’ could be taught to give consent through educating their body language to communicate yes or no. However, though the suggestion that parents should wait until tiny Mary squints her eyes, signalling that she wants her nappies changed comes across as weird to most normal people, the philosophy that Carson communicates is widely and promoted by advocates devoted to eroding parental authority.
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The recent era has seen the emergence of a veritable crusade committed to limiting parent’s freedom to decide how they bring up their children. One of the way in which this project is promoted is through subjecting the child rearing practices of parents to the authority of their child’s consent. Throughout the Anglo-American world campaigners argue that infants and children need to give their consent before they are touched, hugged or kissed. Some go further and contend that a child’s consent should be sought before embarking on a holiday or moving from one place to another.
Campaigns, which encourage children to actively consent to being kissed and hugged by family members are justified on the grounds that it protects youngster’s right to do what they want with their bodies. The New Zealand advocacy organisation CAPS Hauraki organised an on-line campaign warning parents that they could be setting up children for a life of abuse if kids have no say in hugging or kissing other adults. In Australia, the advocacy group Braveheart also argues for the necessity of teaching children the concept of consent. It advises adults to ask ‘Is it OK if I hug you or ‘Can I hold your hand’. Some campaigners go further and argue that parents should teach their children to avoid kissing and cuddling altogether. It advocates parents telling children to give a high-five or a handshake instead of a ‘more intimate hug or kiss’
One of the drivers of the campaign promoting infant and children’s consent is an obsession with young people’s sexuality. That is why it can perceive a family’s member hugging or kissing a child as an act of intimacy. From this perspective, touch-feely grandparents, who don’t ask their grandchildren’s permission to hug them are depicted as potential predators. Of course, just about everyone will recall feeling put upon by the moist kisses of affectionate aunts, uncle and other family members. But the depiction these embarrassing episodes as the precursor to serious abuse says more about the disoriented state of mind and obsessiveness of the ‘sexuality experts’ than about the conduct of family members.
Contempt for parents
The sexually charged discussion surrounding the principle of children’s consent is directly linked to a far more explosive development, which is the practice of de-legitimating parental authority. There was time when parents were asked to give their consent for their children to participate in certain activities or to have access to certain forms of treatment. These days parental behaviour is often queried and attacked on the ground that they acted without the consent of their child.
The right of parents to bring up their children in accordance with their values is often condemned by nosy professionals and described as a form of indoctrination. They claim that since children did not consent to baptised or brought up as Catholics or as Jews, their parents violated the autonomy. The Safe Schools programme, which initially enjoyed bipartisan support in the Australian Parliament took it upon itself to teach youngsters ideas about sexuality, which directly contradicted the moral outlook and values of the vast majority of parents. It taught children that far from normal, heterosexuality was a one option among many others. The programme aimed to popularise the idea that gender identity was fluid and that children’s sex was often arbitrarily imposed on them by doctors.
The most troublesome feature of the Safe Schools was its explicit displacement of parental authority by the leading role assigned to the expert. In this case, the affirmation of children’s consent was used to deprive parents from influencing the cultivation of their offspring’s sexual identity. Safe School’s marginalisation of the parent was no accident but the explicit mission of this project. As a Safe Schools manager Joel Radcliffe, an academic based at La Trobe University remarked; though ‘parents’ seem ‘to have a lot of power (in) schools’, they ‘don’t have the power to shut this down’.
When schools, teachers and experts assume responsibility for the development of a youngster’s sexual identity they take control over one of the most fundamental dimension of a child’s development. Their reluctance to disclose to parents vital information about their children’s behaviour is underpinned by the conviction that parents are both incompetent and cannot be trusted to deal with guiding their children moral and sexual development.
The very idea that a child’s consent trumps the authority of parents expresses in a roundabout way the superiority of the status of the expert. Why? Because the very idea of a child giving consent about how they are brought up is an irrational formulation. Children’s rights, including the right to consent are based on the premise that they have the capacity to exercise them. Yet just as babies are not able to exercise their right of consent on when to change their nappies, nor do school children have the moral capacity to consent to their religious of sexual education. Since in practice, children are not able to exercise the rights assigned to then, it falls upon parenting experts and young people’s advocacy groups to speak on their behalf. So in the end it is the expert and not the parent that gets to decide the needs of the child.
The contempt that sexuality educators direct at parents is but the current version of the arrogant attitudes that, since modern times, professionals have directed at mothers and fathers. For example, the philosopher John Stuart Mill, the author of On Liberty, linked his call for the compulsory schooling of children to his distrust of parental competence. He regarded state-sponsored formal education as possessing the capacity to free children from the ‘uncultivated’ influence of their parents. He asserted that since ‘the uncultivated cannot be competent judges of cultivation’, they needed the support of enlightened educators to socialise their children.
By the 1960s and 1970s professionals’ contempt for the parents became far more expansive. The British educationalist Frank Musgrove wrote in 1966
‘It is the business of education to eliminate the influence of parents. We have decided that children shall no longer be at the mercy of their parents and it is the business of local education authorities to see that they are not’.
Since the 1960s the project of eliminating the influence of parents have been pursued through the elevation of the authority of a child’s consent.
Deanne Carson’s suggestion that parental behaviour should be guided by their baby’s consent is so absurd that it can be easily dismissed as the statement of an arrogant expert attempting to attract public attention. However, the assault on parental authority is not a joke. A few days ago the Department of Education of England announced that children as young as 4 will start ‘consent classes’ where they will be taught about sexual boundaries in an ‘age-appropriate way. At a time when most 4 year old children are unlikely to be able to spell the word consent or pronounce it, the only consequence of classes on this subject will be to diminish parental influence over the moral and sexual development of their children.
Frank Furedi’s How Fear Works: Culture Of Fear In The 21st Century, is published by Bloomsbury Press
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