Today I was pushing Bobby on the swing at the park. Each time his swing came toward me, I reached forward and tickled him. He responded by smiling and laughing, leaning forward and grinning at me. Each time as he came toward me he became excited, anticipating my tickles. Then something changed. Bobby still laughed when I ticked him as he came toward me, but he did so in a forced, annoyed way, and he leaned away from my touch. He managed to get out an “uh-uh” in the midst of his laughter. And so I stopped.
From what I have observed at this park since Bobby’s older sister Sally was little, this particular piece of park equipment is generally fairly frightening to small children. It spins incredibly fast, and I’ve watched parents spin their children dizzy. Worse, I once watched a child of about ten spin a child of about three in it until the smaller child started screaming even as the older child grinned. That’s when I stepped in and put a stop to that and gave the older child a talking to.
So as I put Bobby into the spinning bucket, I didn’t expect him to like it. I spun him slowly, talking to him softly as I did so. He smiled and laughed, eyes wide but grinning. After ten or so spins his face changed and he began frantically saying “all done, all done!” I immediately stopped the spinning and lifted him out. I was surprised, then, when he later on asked me to put him in the bucket for another go. The same thing happened as before—at first he enjoyed it, then he didn’t enjoy it and I immediately took him out. Thinking about it, I realized something. Bobby wanted back in the bucket because he trusted me. He knew I would listen to him and get him out as soon as he was done. He knows I respect him and his body.
I take these principles seriously. I don’t require either Bobby or his older sister Sally to hug or kiss anyone they don’t want to. Sally has asked me not to tickle her, so I don’t. I teach my children that their bodies are theirs—and I respect that. There is precious little children actually have any form of control or ownership over, and this is one place I draw a firm line. I’m trying to remember where I first heard ideas about respect for children’s bodies articulated, but I honest think that the easiest way to explain this is to share an anecdote.
Over Christmas we were at Sean’s parents’ house. Sally’s grandpa was holding her on his lap when she asked to get down, and he said no. He said he wasn’t done holding her, and besides, didn’t she love him and like sitting on his lap? Sally struggled and Sean’s dad held her closer. At first I said nothing, because I was in a state of shock. I couldn’t believe this was really actually happening. Shaking myself out of my shock, I asked Sean’s dad to put Sally down, but he didn’t. He acted like it was some sort of joke. It wasn’t until I stood and moved forward to intervene that he set Sally down. She immediately ran from the room, crying.
By this time I was angry—really angry. I turned to Sean’s dad, and he responded to my expression by both being physically taken aback and then looking slightly bemused. Sean’s dad knows my “stop giving me shit, I mean business” face. It usually comes out when he says that people should be able to just pay out of pocket for healthcare, or that birth control is totally unnecessary. Angry, and justifiably so, I laid into him.
“Do you really want Sally to think it’s normal and okay for people to not respect her physical boundaries?!” I practically hissed at him. “Do you really want her to think it’s normal and okay for her boyfriend, someday, to tell her that if she loves him she should be okay with him pushing her physical boundaries? Is that really what you want?!”
Like I said, I was angry.
With that, and without giving him time to respond, I turned my heel and left the room. I followed Sally’s trail of tears to the guest bedroom. I found her crying on her little bed. I apologized for not stepping in sooner, and I told her that what her grandpa and said and done was wrong. I listened to her, I held her, I wiped her tears.
“My body is mine, Mama,” she said shakily.
“Yes honey, it is yours,” I responded.
If we tell children that they must allow kisses and hugs they do not want, that their physical boundaries are not respected, that whoever is the biggest gets to say who touches or tickles or hugs whom, what in the world do we think we’re teaching them?! For me, this is one of the biggest parts of both keeping Sally safe from predators and ensuring that she will be strong enough to stay out of or leave unhealthy or abusive romantic relationships.
And frankly, respecting your child’s body is also part of being a decent human being.