There is an article in the Toronto Star’s ethics column that was brought to my attention given the response it garnered from the journalist. Someone wrote in with the following question:
My sister-in-law, for as long as I can remember, sleeps with her son in his bed. He’s now 10. Her husband, my brother, sleeps alone in their bedroom. I don’t ask questions but recently have started to feel guilty; by saying nothing, I am enabling a situation that seems unhealthy. No matter how I frame the intervention in my head, I feel it won’t be received well. My brother doesn’t seem to care . . . nor my sister-in-law or nephew. So is this my problem?
The answer, from columnist Ken Gallinger (who is not actually an ethicist in the academic sense of the word, but rather a former minister with the United Church of Canada), is, in short: “If it feels like parental abuse and it doesn’t stop, report it”. Yep, he sums up this behaviour as being totally inappropriate and actually abusive when he says, “It’s not OK for a parent to sleep regularly, one-on-one, with a 10-year-old of the opposite gender. No way.” He goes on to suggest that the author of the question may need to contact his local Children’s Aid Society to intervene after raising the questions like “Are they naked?” and “Whose needs are driving this situation?”
I’d like to offer my own response to this because I find it horrifying that we have come to the stage where historically normal parenting is subject to such sexual and abusive innuendos. There are two main issues that are at play here that are worthy of discussion: the child’s sex (and the sexualisation of the parent-child relationship) and who’s business is it what an individual family’s sleeping arrangements are.
Sex and Sexualization
The response from Mr. Gallinger suggests that he would actually be okay if this were a girl who was still sleeping with her mother regularly at age 10 or if it was the boy’s father who was sharing the bed with him. The suggestion that it is abuse because the child is of the opposite sex ignores some rather critical points in parenting and makes implications that are rather disturbing, to say the least.
In many households, the mother remains the primary source of comfort for children, especially during the nighttime, and as such children – whether they be male or female – will want to turn to their most trusted caregiver at nighttime when things are often a little more scary than usual. (This can also happen if dad is working – and needs to be rested – and mom is home, making mom the de facto nighttime caregiver. Whether this situation excludes dads from nighttime care is a whole other can of worms, but it is often something that does take place in households.) This often means that it is mom that is turned to and mom who offers the comfort that the child needs. The idea that the child and parent must be of the same sex for this to be “appropriate” or even “non-abusive” ignores the reality that exists for many families. It also suggests that a boy cannot benefit from the same level of comfort, safety, and security that a girl can for as long a period, something I personally find to be an awful suggestion. (Or that a girl can’t benefit from it when the father is the primary caregiver.)
The question we have to ask is why would child sex even be a consideration? Why would one parent-child pairing be allowed when another wouldn’t? Mr. Gallinger’s suggestion that the author of the question ask about degrees of dress and if there is genital contact tells us what we need to know, namely that his concern is that sexual abuse is taking place, that dad is allowing it, and that sexual abuse only occurs in a heterosexual manner. This is so profoundly disturbing on so many levels that I struggle with where to begin.
We have sexualized a lot in our culture – you can’t watch a group of ads on TV without seeing some level of sexualisation to sell anything from cars to beer. Children’s Halloween costumes are getting more and more sexual for younger and younger children. This sexualisation means that our understanding of normal, natural human behaviour is being skewed to the point where we see sex everywhere. Including parenthood.
Women who breastfeed their children beyond infancy face similar accusations of sexual abuse and somehow forcing the child into situations s/he does not want. Bedsharing also faces the same scrutiny, often because we associate the bed with sex when it’s between consenting adults. But this is not how humans have evolved or slept for the majority of human history. Sleep is something social in many cultures and children sleeping with parents continues for extended periods. In many hunter-gatherer tribes, opposite-sex co-sleeping (because beds aren’t quite as they are for us) continues until children reach the age of maturity, 10-12 years of age, while same-sex co-sleeping continues beyond that. In Japan, families can sleep in the same room until a child moves out. These social sleeping arrangements are actually far more normal than people realize, but in cultures where not everything is sexualized, it is simply the normal state of affairs.
The fear of abuse is rampant in our society and although it’s something we need to take seriously, the idea that simply because a family bedshares (and clearly isn’t hiding it), it must be abuse, is asinine. Abuse is a quiet, hidden act. If this mother were abusing her child, it likely would not take the form of bedsharing each and every night and being open about it such that this brother-in-law is aware of the situation. The author admits that no one seems to care about the situation – it’s normal for them – and so we have to ask: How likely is abuse? To me, it sounds like it’s not abusive at all and if there were any concerns about abuse per se, the author should speak directly to the family (or his nephew) to give them the opportunity to talk about it.
Notably, the focus on the heterosexual relationship also belies an ignorance about abuse in that if abuse were the real fear, then it should hold for children of either sex. Thus, it seems that perhaps what Mr. Gallinger really fears is a consensual sexual relationship between mother and son. Again, this says more about Mr. Gallinger and his sexualisation of a 10-year-old boy and his mother than about the actual risk of this being a reality. Interestingly, as mentioned in the question, mom and son have bedshared forever and it has been suggested that abuse is less likely in homes where a close, nurturing relationship is fostered. This is in line with how sibling incest is less likely when the children grew up together and were close. Non-sexual closeness in childhood seems to serve as a buffer against incest, not promote it.
Does this mean abuse absolutely isn’t going on? No. Does it mean that abuse should be the first place we go? Definitely not.
Whose Business Is It?
If we get away from the question of abuse given the evidence that no one has a problem with the situation of those who are involved, where does that leave us? Is this type of sleeping arrangement something that should be of concern to anyone else involved?
First off, there is very little information about why the mother and child are still bedsharing – does the child suffer nightmares? Is the child a highly anxious child who needs someone close? Does the child have sleep apnea and the parents feel better with one parent close by should something happen? Or is it simply an arrangement that works for this family because it’s what they’ve been doing for years?
People often forget that children are different and what works for one will not work for another. My sister bedshared with my mom until she was around 10-11, an arrangement that worked as my sister woke nightly with anxiety or nightmares and would seek out comfort. Though many kids will be comfortable sleeping on their own at this age, my sister wasn’t. My mother, seeing her child’s need for comfort and support, provided that. I can say with near-certainty that she would have done the same for my brother as well. This was about meeting her children’s needs with the knowledge that they would come into their own in their own time. And guess what? My sister did and eventually didn’t need that comfort at night anymore.
My own daughter is 5 and still sleeps with us despite sleeping well through the night, but she has been vocal about not feeling like she wants to sleep alone in her own room. She likes being close, she cuddles for much of the night, and this is something that doesn’t bother us at all. When she’s ready, she will move to her own room and I will look back with fondness on the days and nights we spent cuddling. I know I’m not alone either as more and more families embrace a family bed style sleeping arrangement for extended periods, going well beyond infancy in some cases.
I realize that many reading this question probably wonder most about the dad being in the other room, away from mother and son, but again, we have no idea why. Does he work hours that require him to sleep at different times than them? Does he snore? Or is their marriage not dependent upon nighttime closeness, with them finding intimate times in different places, as many bedsharing families do? In my own life, I know many couples that have slept separately for a variety of issues, snoring being one of the most common.
Just as we don’t often ask about the details of all of our friends’ lives, or even agree with their choices when we do know, the same will go for different families. Goodness knows that there is a huge variety of sleeping, eating, living, playing, schooling, and working environments that exist in our society and many will fall outside of our societal “norm”. When this happens, we can worry and wonder for as humans we like things to “fit” into our schemas of the world. Interestingly, in parenting many of the acts or behaviours that are now deemed “abnormal” or “worrisome” have strong roots in our evolutionary history. When this is the case, we may want to ask why we have moved so far away from our biological and evolutionary roots and to what purpose a return might serve?
Many of us will think about how this type of situation wouldn’t work for us or how we might feel horrified by it personally, but the fact is that it is none of our business what this one family chooses to do when no one is being harmed. Personal opinions on parenting and situations are expected, but when this moves towards accusations of abuse, we need to be very, very careful about why we are jumping down this rabbit hole. In this particular case, when it is clear to the brother-in-law that “[m]y brother doesn’t seem to care… nor my sister-in-law or nephew”, why are we jumping down this hole at all?
When he asks if it is his problem, the real answer should be “no”, with the only caveat being that if he worries about anything, he should be talking to his brother, not in an intervention way, but rather to clarify (which at least Mr. Gallinger suggests, though with the caveat that it needs to stop or be reported). Point out he doesn’t understand the reason why they’re doing this and allow the family to explain or tell him to bugger off. Other than that, it really isn’t any of his business.
It really is as plain and simple as that.