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What My Mom Taught Me About Consent

Updated: Jan 10

I entered the room, intentionally leaving the door open behind me. Another person in the room asked, “Do you want to close the door?” My reply: “I don’t want to, but I will.”


This is a response I learned from my mom. As a child back in the 70s, I heard her respond that way sometimes when she was asked a question that started with “Do you want to…” For example:

  • “Do you want to take me to school this morning?” “I don’t want to, but I will.”

  • “Do you want to make spaghetti for dinner?” “I don’t want to, but I will.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this taught me two very important things about consent.


Want, Will, Won’t


The first thing it taught me was the difference between “want to” and “willing to.” Something I want to do is something I would choose to do for my own benefit, as a result of my own impulses or desires. There might be other things that I wouldn’t choose to do as a result of my own desires, but I would be willing to do because someone else wants it. Then there’s another category of things that I would not be willing to do even if someone else wants it. The three categories are want, will, and won’t.


An important part of consent is differentiating between those three categories when I’m making choices about what to do. I’ve had times where people, clients and otherwise, make a request by asking me if I want to do something. When I respond, “I don’t want to, but I will,” I think of that as a “yes” to the request they are actually making. But sometimes the other person will hear that as a no. They only want me to do it if it’s something I would choose for myself. They are not willing to receive my willingness. As a result, they end up taking the entire “Will” category off the table, and eliminating it from the possibilities.


I’ve noticed that often someone who is not willing to receive another’s willingness has had experiences in the past where they asked for something that the other person did begrudgingly. As a result, after fulfilling the request, that other person may have been angry, resentful, withdrawn, or they may have felt entitled to get what they want.


In those past situations, that other person was actually not in their willingness. What distinguishes between “willing to” and “won’t” is that when I’m willing to, I can do what is requested with an open heart, and with generosity. If I can’t do it with generosity, then I’m actually not in my willingness at all. In that situation, I actually cross my own boundaries. That’s where the anger and resentment come from. Anger is a natural response any time my boundaries are crossed. But I have to take responsibility for crossing my own boundaries rather than blaming someone else for my feelings. If I am genuinely in my willingness, no anger or resentment will arise.


It’s somewhat tricky in the English language, because if I say “I don’t want to do that,” technically I could be in either of the other two categories. I could be willing (with openness) to do it, or I could be unwilling to do it. All I’m saying is that I wouldn’t choose to do it for my own benefit. However, most people, when they say “I don’t want that,” what they mean is they are not willing to do it. In everyday usage, there doesn’t seem to be any common way of expressing that I’m in the “willing to” category. This is precisely what my mom’s response, “I don’t want to, but I will,” does, and that’s why I’m so grateful I learned that from her.


Let’s come back to entitlement. Sometimes people will do things they’re not willing to do so that they then feel entitled to get what they want. In effect, they are saying, “I’ll do something I don’t want (am not willing) to do for you, with the understanding that you will then do something you don’t want (are not willing) to do for me.” This creates such a lose/lose situation! Either the two people involved are completely incompatible, or, more likely, at least one of them is not seeing a range of possibilities in that moment. More on why that happens in a future blog post.


Clear Requests


The second thing my mom’s response taught me was to be more clear about the intention behind the question. “Do you want?” can be used to convey three different meanings. It can be a way to make a request, as in “I’m cold. Do you want to close the window?” It can be a way to express a willingness and make an offer, as in “Do you want me to pick you up at the airport?” It can also be a way to ask for information about someone’s preferences, as in “Do you want to go out for dinner or stay home?” When one phrase can be used for multiple purposes, it’s likely to result in confusion. It’s helpful to be clear about how we are using such a phrase.


For example, when I was a kid and asked my mom, “Do you want to take me to school?” I was actually making a request, but expressing it in terms of her desires. Her response, “I don’t want to, but I will” clarified that instantly. It would have been better for me to make the request directly, as in, “Will you take me to school?”


Summary


My mom's response, “I don’t want to, but I will” taught me two different things about consent. It taught me to be more clear when I was making a request, and it also taught me the difference between “want to” and “willing to.” Years later, I came across the Wheel of Consent framework, created by Dr. Betty Martin, which organizes and clarifies not only these concepts but many others as well. I recommend it for anyone who wants to be more clear in their communication and interactions.