Have you ever heard a parent say that they don’t believe their children should have to consent to sex when they’re older? Or that they shouldn’t wait for someone else to consent? I didn’t think so. It’s pretty much a universal in Western cultures that we expect our children to understand they have their own rights to their body. And yet we also live in a world where most people may say they get this, but feel very differently. Some feel they have the right to touch others without consent so long as it’s meant well. Some feel they shouldn’t be upset if someone just touches them without consent because they know the person meant no harm. And in all this we end up with very confused children and even adults. The problem is that our words and our actions are telling two very different stories to our children, despite our best of intentions.
When we force our children to hug and kiss grandma or friends or anyone else, we are telling them their body is not theirs.
When we force our children to cut their hair when they don’t want to or not cut it when they want to, we are telling them that our rights to their body is greater than their own.
When we continue to tickle despite protests of saying no because our child is laughing, we are telling them that saying ‘no’ doesn’t mean anything.
When we don’t explain to our children when another child doesn’t want to be hugged or touched that the other child has that right, we are teaching them that others don’t have rights to their bodies.
In fact, every time we use our greater strength to force a child to do anything (excepting safety issues, of course), we are telling them that physical strength gives you rights to someone else’s body.
All of this while preaching that they have every right to their body. The silent message just includes “Except when…”
None of us mean to be sending this message. In fact, I think many of us would be horrified at the thought that we were sending this. And this means some will read this and feel defensive immediately. But we have to overcome that and we can overcome that if we’re willing.
Last night my husband was playing with my daughter. Let me first say that we are big on her body being her own. We never force hugs and because she does love to hug other kids, I am often explaining that others have rights to their body and a child saying ‘no’ means she can’t hug them. So we’re pretty big on trying to be cognizant of this in our house.
Anyway, hubby was playing something with her (there was tickling, sand, sand toys, etc.) and she was laughing hysterically, having a blast. Suddenly, in her laughs, she said “no”. And my husband didn’t stop. She said “no” again, and eventually the laughing stopped and so did dad. That’s when she got away and ran to mom, crying.
My husband had absolutely no intention of hurting her or causing her to cry at all. He thought they were playing. And his first response was defensiveness, he said he didn’t mean to hurt her and gave the “What’s the big deal?” tone to his voice. I calmly explained that she’d said “no” and that if we want her to feel that her no means something, we have to respect it too. Even though she was laughing, she said “no”. I expected my husband to now get even more defensive because now I was insinuating he was wrong when all he wanted to do was play with her.
He took a moment, I saw his face go through a variety of emotions as he pondered what to say in response, and he settled upon, “You’re right.” In a moment he had gotten over his defenses and was able to apologize to our daughter and told her he should have stopped when she said “no”. And she seemed happier hearing that too. The learnable moment led to a greater awareness for all of us and his apology in particular validated her sense of violation but also, I believe, her trust in her own body and her own rights.
I want to write that we have to teach our children about respect for themselves and others, but I think that’s wrong. I think children have a pretty good innate sense of their own bodies and what they do and do not like, and as that is respected it should extend to others. But we override this as parents. So really it’s us that has to do the learning. We have to override our own experiences as children and learn that our children have the right to their own body and we need to respect that. And although my husband is pretty special, smart, unique, and all that, he is also both human and a parent, and if he can learn on a Friday night on a patio about how a small, well-meaning act can undermine our daughter’s rights to her body, so can anyone.