I have a large family. My maternal and paternal sides often party together. As a child, I remember going to huge parties at my maternal great grandmother’s home. My great grandmother had sixteen children, and I can’t tell you how many grands, great grands, nieces, nephews, etc. she had. She had a modest home in South Philly, and if you were to walk by on any given day, you’d never guess how many people could fill her home when she threw one of her legendary parties. Cora was the ultimate hostess. When it was time to leave, often in the wee hours of the morning or later the next day, she’d want to give everyone a big hug and kiss goodbye. But that goodbye was multiplied by tens and tens. From every corner of every room, you’d hear “give your uncle a big hug and kiss” or “hey, girl, give me some sugar”. This was the routine. I’d often leave her house smelling of Newport 100s, Virginia Slims, stall Schaefer beer and saliva. I was bombarded with kisses and hugs that I tried to shy away from but was never successful. And it never seemed as if I was allowed to say “no.” And this tradition continues. Lots of kisses, hugs and back pats sans permission.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, my wife and I had long discussions about how we would parent. My friends with kids used to joke with us about best-laid plans. We knew our expectations of parenting would crash with the reality of parenting. But one thing we knew for sure is we’d teach our child about body autonomy. When she was born I loved nothing more than to sniff her head, kiss all over her face and hold her tight. But as she got older, we learned very quickly she knew what body autonomy was, even if she didn’t know the word for it. About a year ago, when she was learning to put sentences together, my wife and I were putting her down for bed. We read her a few stories, let her watch a few minutes of her favorite app and then turned off the lights. I went to kiss her forehead and she said “no mommy.” And although I was taken aback, because she had never said it, in that moment, I knew I had to respond accordingly. So, I said “ok, baby.” And that was it. Now that she’s a little older, I ask if she wants mommy’s kisses instead of asking for kisses. And the same goes for hugs and any physical contact with her. And this intentional approach drives my family to distraction.
My wife and I are often met with complaints about how we parent our child. When she tells other people she doesn’t want to be touched or backs away from their touch, their eyes focus on us as if we’re supposed to discipline her for not wanting to be touched or kissed by other people. And often it feels like some expect it as payment for gifts or compliments. As determined as we were to make sure people respected her boundaries; it was and still is difficult for people to accept the reasons why. I have to constantly explain to adults that children’s bodies are their own, and they are entitled to enforce boundaries.
This intentional approach to teaching our daughter about boundaries, autonomy and consent was amped up when we were preparing for her for preschool. Before she began in August, my wife and I made sure she knew the medical terms for her body parts, because we wanted her to be able to understand and communicate to us in case someone violated her in any way. I would touch her nose and she would say ‘’mommy touched my nose.” One day on our walk home from school she told me someone touched her hair. I asked her if they asked to touch her hair and she said “no mommy.” I asked if they stopped when she asked and she told me they did. I didn’t minimize her frustration. This was a teachable moment because I could have responded “it’s just hair” and who knows the impact those words could have had on her. Who knows if those words would deter her from telling me if someone touched another part of her body? I wanted her to know I will always believe her and validate her feelings. Always believe your children. Always.
The idea that children’s bodies belong to them and no one else is considered revolutionary in my family, and that’s the saddest part of all. No one should ever wonder why most adults fail to understand the concept of body autonomy and consent when they believe a child should not have the right to say “no” when it comes to their bodies.