Should Babies Consent to Diaper Changes?

A sex educator may have got it wrong, but we still should talk about empowerment

Posted May 15, 2018

Deanne Carson, a sex educator with the organization Body Safety Australia, extended the debate about sexual consent a little further than anyone expected when she suggested that parents seek consent to change a child’s diaper. To be fair to Carson, she is not actually suggesting we wait for a child to fully consent to a diaper change, but she is encouraging parents to make eye contact with their child and at least include the child in the decision.

When I first heard this, I was inclined to write Carson off as another of those crazy over-protective parenting advocates whose misguided advice has imperiled our children, along with anti-vaccers and those murderous proponents of extreme naturopathy who deny their children medical care. But upon reflection, and beyond the hyperbole, Carson may be reminding us of a small truth even if she has chosen a bad example to illustrate it.

To use the word “consent” during diaper changes, Carson has, unfortunately, suggested something sexual about performing basic care for a child, which is of course ludicrous. And second, she has misunderstood the difference between personal empowerment and the need for a structured predictable environment that sometimes insists on imposing limits on our right to choose. Unpacking Carson’s message, I am comfortable with arguing that children need to feel empowered to make decisions that they have the capacity to make. Diaper changes, however, may not be among these.

In my studies of resilience, this theme of personal efficacy is frequently identified as a critical factor in the assessment of a child’s capacity to cope with stress. This, however, is  where Carson may have slipped. Empowerment quickly leads to entitlement and narcissism when unchecked by responsibilities to self and others.

Having wrestled my own children to the floor on a few occasions to get a diaper changed, I hope that my actions were telling them that there were limits to their behavior and that if that diaper didn’t get changed that there were consequences (a bad rash for them, and a socially disquieting stink for the rest of the household). But the diaper change had to happen because that was a reasonable expectation for the child's welfare. In this case, the need for control over the child is less about consent and more about finding the right balance between individual empowerment and the need for the child to learn how to act responsibly. We can certainly teach our children this balance without being abusive, but it is not exactly something they consent to.

While those on the extreme end of the consent debate will argue that holding a child down (firmly, but without anger) to change a diaper is programming them to accept abuse, I prefer to think about this as offering a child reasonable expectations, a predictable and secure environment that holds them accountable, and guidance in how to look after themselves and show empathy towards others. If that diaper change is followed by smiles and laughter,  even better. The message should be that sometimes we have to do things that are uncomfortable but that when we do them we are accepted better by those around us and admired for our participation.

After all, diaper changes are just one of the many ways we impose structure on our children, teaching them each day about this balance between their empowerment and their responsibilities. Anyone who has wrestled an 18-month old into a snow suit on the way to day care while running late for work will fully appreciate the absurdity of using a word like “consent” to describe parenting crises. Firm expectations that are expressed as necessary limits on one’s freedom for the good of everyone involved are a necessary part of every child’s life. As are immunizations (would any child ever consent to that?) and time outs if they have acted horribly towards a sibling.

Perhaps we should remember that children, especially two-year olds, are, as child developmentalist Richard Tremblay likes to quip, the most violent people on earth. Thankfully they are also quite small and, if lucky enough to have good parents, will be quickly socialized into taming their unchecked aggression.

Again, in fairness to Carson, the conversation about sexual abuse, consent, and the right of children to control their bodies might be better kept for other circumstances, like when we roughhouse with our kids and someone gets hurt, pinched, or a foot to the face (please reassure me that I am not the only parent who has lost a tickle fest with his 3-year old). It’s done in the spirit of play, but occasionally things get out of hand, as they will with little children who are still learning to self-regulate and developing empathy for the feelings of others. I would be quite happy in an instance such as that to talk with my child about permission, or to point out that something happened to my body that I didn’t like. These are the first steps towards helping the child understand consent, though I prefer to think about it as giving children the  building blocks for controlling their own personal power and learning that others have personal boundaries as well.

Really, it comes down to wise parenting that helps our children grow into the kind of resilient, caring, contributors to their families and communities that we need them to be. But words matter. The word consent is a poor choice for describing the battle of wills that precede a diaper change. Empowerment, structure, consequences, accountability and resilience are to my mind more accurate descriptions of what we need to teach our children.