Wednesday, January 21, 2009

My girls today are tomorrow's women

As a mother of two girls, I am extra sensitive to a person’s rights regarding her own body; how essential it is to teach our girls to have confidence in themselves and in their bodies; how to marvel at their strength and abilities; how to believe in themselves; how to defend themselves (verbally, ideally) against those who trespass against their wishes or against these rights.

This is a subject that can get me white-hot angry. Fast.

I don’t want to instill fear; I do want to instill healthy confidence. I want to teach respect but also a right to assert one’s physical desires even if they conflict with those of someone bigger. Or older. Or with more power.

With L I don’t worry as much as I do with E. L will need to absorb these lessons, certainly. It is my obligation to teach her to honor and awe her body and its abilities and strengths. But she doesn’t shrink from physical interactions like her sister does. So for E the challenge is tougher and therefore more urgent.

Do you remember any negative physical interactions as a child? Do you remember how awful it felt? An older relative, maybe a person in your church or synagogue, maybe a teacher? I’m not thinking of anything reprehensible or illegal but the simple social niceties that you didn’t want to participate in. You don’t know that older woman. Maybe she scares you a little. Maybe she smells funny. Maybe she has a hairy chin and she’s coming at you for a hug and a kiss and you don’t want to but you’re a little kid and so you’re trapped. Do you have any memories like that?

I have memories like that. Adults should not use their size and age and influence as society-coded people to be respected to make children use their bodies in ways they’re not comfortable, just for the fleeting pleasure it brings to the adult. I understand how cute and sweet and huggable kids are; I understand adults want to touch youth again, to hold it between their hands, even if it is inhabiting another soul now. I also remember even as a little kid that I could recognize an adult's abuse of power, particularly if it meant the loss of my autonomy. Each time an adult asks an unwilling kid for some affection it sends the message to that kid that her own physical instincts aren’t worth respecting, aren’t worth listening to. It sends the message that what the biggest person wants in physical contact, the biggest person should get.

How dare anyone send that message to my girls. To any girl. To any child anywhere.

If my girl doesn’t want to be kissed, don’t kiss her on the head anyway and tell her you stole it. It upsets her. And it tells her you don’t respect her domain over her own body. This is no different than if when she’s in middle school one day, a high schooler grabs her newly-developing breast. You kiss her on the head when she doesn’t want it and you’re undermining her natural but so easily doubtable instinct that she is not on this planet for the physical satisfaction of others.

She does not have to hug or kiss you hello, and she does not have to hug or kiss you goodbye. We always say to the girls, when this request makes one of them uncomfortable, “It’s your body and you don’t have to touch anybody you don’t want to. But you do need to be respectful.” L is too little for this to mean much but E understands how seriously we take the expectation of respect. She knows to say something pleasant like Nice to see you! She knows how to offer a handshake. It looks a little unconventional from an almost-3-year-old, but it is respectful and it offers her a behavioral shelter when she wants to avoid an embrace.

If there is a crowd I’ll ask her if she has any hugs or kisses for anybody. Sometimes she’ll say no. Sometimes she’ll single out one person and run to him or her with a fast hug, though she’ll then usually run back away before that person can return the embrace. She’ll almost always wriggle away before the adult adds a kiss, and if that adult is too enthusiastic, if E gets stuck in a hug, or is moistened by a kiss, well then that adult just ruined everyone else’s chance for receiving any love. E will hide right behind me and not touch anyone else in the group.

Do not bother her repeatedly: “can I have a hug?” “Can I have a kiss?” The answer will be no 99 times out of 100, and for the 1% chance of success you’re risking 99% odds that she’ll avoid you for the next hour instead, and make my life harder because she’ll cling to me to avoid you.

And I WILL play the physical barrier for my girls. Every time. But it’s exhausting. So don’t make me do it.

Don’t give one of them a present, and then ask for a kiss in return. Worse: don’t offer her her favorite breakfast food, then pull it back and ask for a kiss first. Even worse: don’t offer to trade a gift for a kiss. That’s not fair to a little kid. You’re making it clear that you hold the power, and as an adult, don’t you already hold all the power over her anyway? Kids want presents. You’re asking her to set aside her instincts, to sell her body, for a $10 book. How is this different from a recent college grad sleeping with her boss for a promotion? It’s not; it’s just scaled to age. Don’t accuse me of exaggerating, because the underlying principle is the same. You have something that you’ve dangled in front of her so she wants it. Now you’re telling her that the only way to acquire it is to use her body in a way she finds distasteful. Don’t teach her that this is how people in power behave; don’t teach her that she should have to use her body to get what she wants.

I see this behavior from people in our synagogue, from one of the teachers in the girls’ daycare, even from relatives, who should have the same vested interest I do in their welfare and happiness. It baffles me. I know E, particularly, is a sensitive child – but she is entitled to live life at her comfort level, and not at some societal median level.

We have to follow these rules ourselves. Sometimes at night E will say to me, No kisses, tonight, Mama, so I leave her bed after snuggling her without kissing her tonight. Sometimes I’ll drop her off at her classroom in the morning, give her a quick squeeze and a kiss on the cheek, and she’ll call me back into the room as I’m already strategizing my work day. Mama! Mama, come back! You didn’t give me a forehead kiss! I never know with this one, but I follow her cues. It’s a tacit agreement between us, and an essential one to her happiness because it’s that agreement that makes my legs safe for hiding behind.

We’re throwing a pretty big birthday party for her this weekend—at her request. I’m excited for it and for her but I also worry, as whenever she finds herself in the mix of too many adults who love her, too many friends who want to play with her all at the same time, too many relatives who see her too infrequently and clamor for her love—I worry how stressed the physical interactions will make her, how many times she’ll find herself in compromising situations.

It’s a lucky thing for a girl to be so loved, and both my girls are loved, as E says, all the way to the ceiling. But that same good fortune comes also with so many moments of anxiety for E, and by extension, for me. I don’t understand why a kid’s wishes aren’t respected automatically, as validly, as an adult’s. It will be a very good weekend. But it will also be a very long weekend.

On Monday you’re going to be three, my sweet girl, which maybe means you’ll outgrow some of your social anxieties soon. But your personality is just like mine, and I’m still trying to outgrow them, so I’m doubtful. We’re going to have a wonderful birthday weekend, though, and as a birthday gift let me remind you that I will always let you grow at your own pace, try things as you are ready, and that I will always stand up for you. I love you, Mushkie. Pin It


JS said...

Good rant! Nicely articulated. I agree with you, although we probably don't defend our kids as vigorously as you do.

You said "even from relatives" as if you would expect at least relatives to know better. I would actually say it's the opposite - usually relatives are the worst transgressors. I suppose I should include myself among them. You know well that we are a family big on physical affection, and we probably push our kids into the occasional encounter that they are not comfortable with.

I think it's going to take time for people to see things the way you do. This expectation of physical affection as a quid pro quo for gifts/breakfast foods/treats, etc., or even just for the asking, is so socially ingrained that it will probably take generations to move past it. Most people of my grandmother's generation believe that it is disrespectful for a child to ever deny a grandparent a kiss/hug hello. My parents expected me to greet most of our close relatives with a kiss whenever we saw them for family occasions.

Think about it - even today, you still hear the "look how she was dressed, she was asking for it" defense to rape. They should know better by now, but it takes time to change long-held views, even when they are wrong.

Maybe people who do these things with kids should know better too, but I think we're just not there yet as a society. We don't even view adult women as equals; with children it's more complex because they actually are not our equals. I should respect my child's desire not to be tickled, but I don't have to respect his desire for a fifth helping of dessert. I can honestly see where it can be confusing for some of us grownups.

With our kids, we don't force them to display or accept physical affection from friends or relatives when they don't want to (at least I don't think we do), and it's pretty unusual for us to have to deal with any of the bribery situations you described. But I also don't have any problem if their aunts or uncles express open disappointment at being denied a hug or kiss from their nieces and nephews.

Good luck in your mission to bring up your girls to be fully in charge of their own bodies. I hope you're able to educate your friends and relatives so that they see why their behavior is a power play and not just an innocent interaction with a cute kid.

a li'l bit squishy said...

BRAVO!!! Well put. My three girls are outwardly affectionate but we allow it to occur at their pace. My son refuses kisses. ALMOST ALL the time, very very very occasionally will he allow me to kiss him or will he kiss me...but that is his choice...his autonomy and I respect it. Too bad so many others don't. My son also had problems as a small child with strangers wanting to touch his soft red hair...he started wearing a hat all of the time even indoors, and I let him. Darn adult bullies.