A woman in San Francisco recently sparked curiosity,
celebration and outrage with one simple Instagram post. In that post—an adorable
selfie featuring her super-adorable baby, Raven—Nisha Moodley explains that she
always asks baby Raven before she picks him up. Then, as she puts it, she “feels
for his ‘yes’.”
According to Moodley, her goal is to teach her young
son about consent and bodily autonomy. “[I] want him to know that his body is
his,” she writes in her caption, “and that others’ bodies are theirs, and no
one gets to make choices about someone else’s body.”
Not everyone understood the purpose behind this
particular parenting practice, however. In fact, Moodley eventually opted to
disable the comments on her post as a result of the rampant name-calling and “immature,
thoughtfulness vitriol” people were leaving on her feed.
Vitriol aside, it might be easy to see why some find
this practice cumbersome and, frankly, a bit weird. A caretaker may pick up a
baby 100 times over the course of a day. Must they ask the baby’s consent all
100 times? And what does it mean to “feel for a ‘yes’” anyway? Can pre-verbal
babies truly indicate some semblance of consent? And might they risk missing
out on the importance of spontaneous touch and affection?
Moodley addressed some of these concerns in an interview
Beauty. Babies do have their own ways of expressing or withholding consent,
she explains. They can reach their arms out toward you, or they can turn their
body away from you. In other words, they don’t need to know how to talk in
order to express what they want (or don’t want).
Moreover, as Moodley writes in an addendum to her
original post, some commenters incorrectly assumed that she’d “never touch
[her] baby [without] his explicit consent.” But she still picks him up without “feeling
for a ‘yes’” if he is in danger or has an urgent need. In those cases, safety
comes before life lessons.
What’s more, Raven likely experiences plenty of spontaneous
affection. (Let us not forget that the original photo is not only a selfie but
a snuggly baby selfie.) But that affection is probably from caregivers, like
his mother, whom he loves and trusts.
This relates to the overall message that Moodley wants
to teach her child.
With this explanation, Moodley’s practice becomes not
so weird, and not so seemingly cumbersome after all. In fact, the lessons one
can draw from this practice seem to be as follows:
Babies deserve to be treated like persons and not baby
dolls. They might not be able to exercise their autonomy yet, but their
burgeoning autonomy deserves respect.
Loving touch is wonderful. Even so, no one has the
right to force loving touch on another person: not a grandparent, not an aunt
or uncle, not a cousin, not a friend. Everyone’s bodies deserve respect.
And if you want to teach your child about reciprocity,
start when they are young. They can say yes or no to another person’s touch; other
people can say yes or no to their touch. The yes or no, whether it is expressed
verbally or through body language, deserves respect.
In sum, all people deserve respect—including babies.