Eleanor Morrison, mother, activist, and author of the new board book, C is for Consent, sat down to speak with us about the ways parents, relatives, and caregivers can teach and model consent from birth. In the midst of the #MeToo movement, she felt a sense of urgency to take action: "Tired of the endless waves of sexual assault news, I felt compelled to write a book for my young son titled C IS FOR CONSENT. I'm done with the Weinsteins and Lauers of the world, and ready to turn the tide for the next generation!"
Experienced in activism (GLAAD, Change.org, Advocates for Youth) and Hollywood (John Wells Productions, HBO’s VEEP), Dr. Morrison has her MSc in Social Psychology and Public Communication from the London School of Economics, and her Ph.D in Communication from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School. Check out our conversation with her below.
The Conscious Kid (TCK): Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Why did you write this book and was it influenced or inspired by the #MeToo movement?
Eleanor Morrison (EM): I’ve lived a few different professional lives—in academia, and activism, and Hollywood most recently—but the throughline has always been my passion for equality, social progress, diversity, and basically just treating other humans with respect. And I mean diversity broadly: sex, gender, sexuality, age, ability, religion, etc. That’s just what’s always driven me. And now that I’m a mother, and raising a child, it feels like such a tremendous responsibility, and amazing opportunity, as I’m sure you’ve experienced. There’s this blessing and curse of feeling everything on the news even more acutely than before. Instead of this generalized sense of wanting the world to be a better place, now it’s this specific, targeted drive. I absolutely must make the world better, because it’s the world he’s going to be living in. And I absolutely must do everything I can to shape him into a thoughtful, engaged, respectful, aware human, because he’s hopefully going to be around much longer than I will. In some ways, I really believe raising him is perhaps the most activist thing I may ever do.
And yes, the book is definitely connected to #MeToo. Back on Thanksgiving, I was watching my husband read to my son and these #MeToo stories were popping up on my phone. Who even remembers who it was back at that exact time, there have been so many. I think it was maybe [Matt] Lauer…? Unfortunately, it’s a dime a dozen. So the idea of a kid’s book—literally the name C is for Consent—just flashed in my mind. I took a quick look around online and I couldn’t find anything similar. There are some related books, but mostly for older kids, and definitely no board books that I could find. Our son was only maybe 9 months old at the time, and in this really triggering news cycle, I didn’t want to wait to give him something to start shaping a better future culture—for him and through him—so I started writing the book I wanted to give to him.
EM: The story remains very close to the initial draft that I wrote. It’s a little boy learning to respect body boundaries. I made him a white boy very intentionally because I wanted to optimally engage the young audience who will (unfortunately) grow up to wield the most privilege (unless culture changes dramatically in the next two decades). I made his best friend a little girl of color and I had him model consent by asking before holding her hand. All of that was in the very initial draft. Because of my background, it was really important to have a lot of diversity throughout the book, so I wanted everyone who wasn’t related to that protagonist by blood to be someone of color. I have someone in a wheelchair. I have a gay couple. I really wanted to put that in the visual environment of the book. That was very important to me from the beginning.
TCK: We always talk about the power of naming things. Can you specifically talk about what consent is, and define it?
EM: To me, the simplest way to describe consent—and I included it in the back of the book in the discussion section—is “permission.” It’s asking permission. And permission isn’t obvious. It’s not guaranteed just by asking for it. For instance, in the book, I had examples of Finn both giving and denying bids for physical affection so it’s clear it’s not just a hoop to jump through, you don’t just ask for it and get it. No, it’s more than that. You have to respect other people’s boundaries, and know people are able to make their own decisions about how they want to express affection.
TCK: And you mention that that can be verbal or nonverbal. Can you elaborate on that?
EM: Yeah, so with my son, who is preverbal—well, he makes noises but he doesn’t exactly have a big vocabulary—he’s not able to very clearly say, “Mom, could you quit it with the hugs right now?” Since really thinking about this subject, I’ve become very reflective on my own behavior with him. If he seems to maybe be leaning a little away as I’m trying to smother him with kisses, I want to be sensitive to that. Obviously as a parent you want to just do nothing but smother your child in love, but that is not necessarily respecting that they are their own person, that they are allowed to have their own preferences. You would never just go up to an adult and start smothering them with kisses like that, even if it’s your partner. You would listen to the nonverbal cues, as well as the verbal ones. And so to me, that’s something you can start even before the child is verbal. It’s pretty clear if my son wants to be picked up by a relative or not. He may not have words, but he’s able to communicate. Trying to be thoughtful early on really sets the right tone for a child being able to respect others people’s preferences about their bodies later.
TCK: What types of situations or physical touch with a child would you say require consent? You mention “appropriate vs. inappropriate” in the back of the book.
EM: In the back of the book when I mention appropriate vs. inappropriate, I wanted to open up a space for parents to be able to start gauging, by the age of their child, the readiness for those conversations about “private parts are private,” you know, around things that can prevent child sexual abuse. But I didn’t want to turn the book entirely in that direction. I wanted to focus in a bigger way on the subject of consent. So, with the “inappropriate and appropriate,” that’s what I was getting at there. Just opening up a space for the parent to talk about that without putting it explicitly in there.
To your question about what I think is appropriate for asking a child, I think so much of it depends on who you’re talking about and how much they’re able to read and respect the child’s signals. For instance, my husband and I don’t explicitly ask my son for his consent around affection and touch that often because we’re highly sensitive and responsive to his nonverbal signals. However, I will say that when we are cleaning our son in the bath, I always show him the washcloth with soap on it, and I ask him (even though he can’t give me an answer right now), “Is it okay for me to clean your penis?” We use that word, and we’re trying to make sure he knows that there is some sort of permission that happens. If he seemed to not want that, I’d give him the opportunity to do it himself, and help him if he still needed it. We are also currently the only ones who ever give him a bath. We don’t have any caretakers do it—and we understand that is a privilege we have—but if and when we cross that bridge we’d ask them to approach that moment in the same way. So, so many of these things just have to be navigated by a family’s situation, what they feel comfortable with, what boundaries they want to set up for their child, and to what degree their child is capable of indicating their preferences.
And around things related to safety and sanitary concerns, sometimes we can’t let our child decline certain touch—he can’t refuse our hands stopping him from running full speed into the street—but we try to always be very communicative about those being the reasons, and that we are responsible for keeping him safe, etc. Obviously those are nuances that don’t fit into a board book, but C is for Consent is not meant to be a comprehensive resource. It’s a conversational baseline for the concept of consent and respecting body boundaries, meant as a tool to engage both children and adults in reflecting on how that respect can best be shown within their daily lives.
TCK: You mention that the only previous books on consent out there are for an older audience. Why was it important for you to make a book on consent that is accessible to an even younger audience? In that 0-3 or 0-6 age range?
EM: Obviously a tiny baby isn’t going to understand this book anymore than that baby understands A is for Activist, but as soon as they become a toddler and a preschooler, they will. And I included discussion questions for older kids so the kids can really age up with this book. I recently did a reading with some first graders and was really happy to see how well it worked for them.
But at least as important as the kid audience to me, for books like this, is the adult audience. I wanted something that could function as a conversation starter with adult family and friends—you know, all the well-meaning folks who have been culturally taught to be so expectant of hugs and kisses from kids that they’d actually be insulted if they didn’t get that affection, forgetting that those kids deserve to have their preferences around physical affection respected, just like any adult would. With that in mind, I added in some discussion questions for parents and caregivers to help prompt some self-reflection on actions and approach.
TCK: I noticed that. It's just as meaningful and educational for adults, as it is for children. What is a parent or caregiver’s role in modeling consent? Why is it important for them to ask before physically touching a child?
EM: Especially in a parent-child relationship, I’m not saying everybody should ask, every single time, before there is touch. There are so many nuances to that. But the parent can model how they navigate physicality in their relationships with other people. You can communicate that some people might always be happy to get hugs and kisses from you, but it’s still important to pick up on nonverbal, as well as the verbal cues, and to respect other people’s ability to say no.
And something that I try to do in my own parenting, more than even modeling it with another adult, is stepping in when our child is having an interaction with somebody, and helping my child understand that they have options. So, for instance, as in the book, if somebody gives my child a gift, and if the person is prompting, kind if reaching for a hug, I might get down on the level with my child and let them know, “Oh, this is a gift from so-and-so, I think they might like a hug but you don’t have to give them a hug unless you want to.” So, I intercept in those instances. I try to be the go-between that narrates what the options are, so that they understand that they don’t have to, just because an adult is bending down expectantly holding their arms out. For me, it’s a lot of that. It’s a lot of taking things as they happen, as moments of supporting my child. And then, like I mentioned before in the bath, we do explicitly ask in certain times as a way of setting that kind of boundary expectation. Some of it is just so specific to the children, specific to the family relationships.
EM: The feedback I’ve gotten from various people has been very interesting. Some people immediately understand what this book is trying to do, and immediately are very supportive of it. And some people are like, “Oh, but I don’t want to be rude to grandma.” There’s this huge worry about being perceived as rude. And as a woman, you know, we live in this culture where, if you don’t perform a kind of polite sweetness, you can be seen in negative ways. That performed politeness is bad enough on its own, but absolutely cannot be given power over your body. That can lead to being pushed down certain physical paths that you would not want to go. So that’s not a sufficient reason to me, that you would have to perform a politeness to anyone with your body. That’s just not good enough. So, yes, inserting myself in those kind of moments to be a support to my child, that I think is the strongest thing I can do.
TCK: Why did you make your protagonist a white male? You also stated in your Kickstarter that “consent cannot be seen as a ‘girls only’ concern.” Can you speak on that?
EM: It’s funny because in all my creative writing, I basically always have a female protagonist, and maybe half the time it’s a female protagonist of color. I literally don’t think I’ve ever written anything centered on a white man before. But in doing this book, it just seemed so obvious that it needed to be a white boy because of the privileges that white men receive in our culture, and their ability to really shift the cultural tone around so many things, including consent. I wanted to really engage that audience.
EM: On the point that consent is not just a girl’s issue, I worry sometimes with #MeToo stories being so immediately understood and shared by women, that sometimes men struggle to not jump to defend themselves as “#NotAllMen.” They often want to feel like they’re good guys on the right side, while maybe not critically engaging with ways that they implicitly help that #MeToo culture along with what they do or don’t say to friends who tell certain stories, etc. It’s so crucial to really bring men and boys in on that journey, because feminism is not a women’s issue.
TCK: And males can be sexually assaulted or harassed as well.
EM: Exactly. And obviously, there are not just males and females out there. I am very sensitive to the gender identity spectrum. I wasn’t able to really work anything into this board book on that, but I see a lot of the current conversations around the gender identity spectrum and queerness as being so intertwined with feminist concerns and equality. So any tiny little bit that I can do to help bring boys, and white boys (who I obviously have a very personal responsibility for in my home life) in on that—making them real shareholders in this, is for the better.
TCK: What research or expert recommendations did you draw from in creating this book?
EM: As I’m sure you heard about, the Girl Scouts shared recommendations, I believe it was back around the holidays, that children not be forced to hug grandma when they’re getting gifts. I'm not affiliated with the Girl Scouts, I just mention because it got so much media coverage. Some parents were very happy to hear that recommendation, and that thoughtfulness, and some parents were like, “Oh, so we’re not supposed to hug our family anymore?!” and took it to a place that I think is a little unfortunate and reactionary. The Girl Scouts were referencing the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that children not be forced to do things with their bodies that they don’t want to do. It makes so much sense when you step back and think about it, and take yourself out the equation if you’re worried about grandma’s feelings. For a child to learn to respect someone else’s body, they need to have respect for their own. And be able to be in touch with their feelings about what they do and don’t want to happen with their bodies. And be able to recognize that they’re allowed to have those feelings! That it is safe to express those feelings, even if it is seen as rejecting somebody. To have the space to do that is so crucial to the child’s development of emotional and physical boundaries.
TCK: Where can people get C is for Consent?
EM: I would encourage people to support their local bookstores as much as they can. Unfortunately, I know it’s just not yet carried by many stores. The global book distributor Ingram carries it, so people around the world can request it from their local bookstores and libraries—those places can very easily order it from Ingram. But if your local store doesn’t work with Ingram, you can order it directly from Amazon (here).
I would also like to add that I am very thankful for feminist bookshops. They showed early support when I was trying to get it carried by any shops at all, back before I had Ingram distribution and it was just me shipping a few books from my home. Shops like Charis in my hometown of Atlanta put C is for Consent on their shelves before I had a good review from School Library Journal, before Kirkus said nice things about the book. Those folks were there to support it from the beginning and that means so much.