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Bodily Autonomy and Sexual Abuse

Photo Credit: wickenden on Flickr. Used by Creative Commons License.

While Annabelle and I were traveling, we found ourselves in the company of groups of people far more often than usual, and it occurred to me just how many adults feel that it’s perfectly appropriate to touch a child without warning or invitation. Sure, it’s just a pat on the head or the back, a friendly touch on the arm or the leg, or perhaps a little squeeze on the cheek. It’s meant to be an acknowledgement of how adorable the child is, perhaps a way to connect and appreciate their sweetness. I get that, but I urge you, if you engage in this sort of touch, to think more deeply about whether it’s appropriate or respectful of the child.

One thing that really struck and upset me in our recent encounters was how many adults used touch when they had already made other attempts to engage Annabelle and she had chosen not to respond. They may have approached her, smiled at her, asked her a question, and gotten nothing in return. I make a point of acknowledging and speaking to people, even strangers, who come near as a way of modeling polite behavior and conversation, but I try to honor Annabelle’s feelings in these situations as well. Sometimes she is feeling shy or uncomfortable, and I think that’s okay. I don’t urge her to respond, because she shouldn’t have to. I may ask her in front of a new person if she’s feeling shy, knowing she won’t likely respond to me either, as a way of highlighting the importance and validity of her feelings and pointing out that it’s shyness, not rudeness, that is preventing her from speaking or connecting. To connect or not is her choice, and I don’t feel that social conventions should obligate her to do things she’s uncomfortable with.

So many times a situation went something like this: a person on the street stopped to say hello, looking Annabelle in the eye and perhaps asking her a question. She would tense up and look at me. I would respond to the person in a way that was logical based on their question and look at Annabelle. If she was still looking away from them, I would smile and say, “Are you feeling a bit shy?” Typically she remained tense, and I made an attempt at a graceful exit from the situation on this note. I was shocked when many of these people, after seeing that Annabelle had no interest whatsoever in engaging with them and was, in fact, uncomfortable, decided to reach in and force a connection by touching her in some way. Maybe this was intended as a reassurance of some kind. “It’s alright that you don’t want to talk to me, you’re still darling, have a pat on the head!” I’m sure that the intentions of each of these people were pure, but the message this sort of behavior sends to children is, I believe, a very dangerous one.

I know I’m not alone in that one of my greatest fears as a parent has to do with the possibility of one of my children being sexually abused. Something that I find extremely disconcerting is not only how disgustingly common this kind of abuse is, but how often it goes unreported. Figures on abuse reporting differ widely from one source to another, but I found this statement in an article from The Leadership Council titled “Eight Common Myths About Child Sexual Abuse,” particularly sobering.

Estimates suggest that only 3% of all cases of child sexual abuse (Finkelhor & Dziuba-Leatherman, 1994; Timnick, 1985) and only 12% of rapes involving children are ever reported to police (Hanson et al., 1999). A nationally representative survey of over 3,000 women revealed that of those raped during childhood, 47% did not disclose to anyone for over 5 years post-rape. In fact, 28% of the victims reported that they had never told anyone about their childhood rape prior to the research interview. Moreover, the women who never told often suffered the most serious abuse. For instance, younger age at the time of rape, a family relationship with the perpetrator, and experiencing a series of rapes were all associated with delayed disclosure (Smith et al., 2000).

The most commonly cited reason for this lack of reporting is the blame and shame perpetrators so often manage to place on their victims, but I know far too many victims of childhood sexual abuse who simply didn’t understand that what was being done to them was inappropriate. They were convinced it was a “game,” or a special secret that only they and their abuser shared. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, in their Child Sexual Abuse Fact Sheet, explains that,

Very young children may not have the language skills to communicate about the abuse or may not understand that the actions of the perpetrator are abusive, particularly if the sexual abuse is made into a game.

My concern is that when we as adults take the liberty of touching children without their consent, albeit in completely innocuous ways, we’re demonstrating for them that adults have a right to their body. If children are used to being touched by adults in the supermarket, restaurants, on the street, and also at home with their families, how can we expect them to develop a sense of their own physical boundaries? How can we expect them, especially at a very young age, to understand the difference between well intentioned touch and abuse?

I believe very strongly that children have a right to make decisions about their own bodies. They have a right to decide when and how they want to be touched. While their innocence and sweetness may make us want to scoop them up and cuddle them, if we want them to have a strong sense of control over issues relating to their own bodies, we must learn to step back and intentionally involve them in the decision of whether, and how such an action should play out. My role as a mother does not entitle me to hugs, kisses, snuggles, or anything of the sort. Sometimes Annabelle wants to kiss me, and sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she gives the best squeezes a mom could hope for and other times my requests for a hug are met with an unwavering, “no.” It’s my job to respect her response no matter what, and to step in when others forget to consider her rights and boundaries, even if it comes off as offensive, or makes me appear rude.

This is something I’m still working on, and it’s so difficult to get over my own personal hangups about offending others, especially when I can see that these people are well-intentioned. I have been guilty of cringing inwardly while smiling outwardly, but the more I reflect on this issue, the more I’m committed to upholding and protecting my daughter’s rights no matter what. Her boundaries are important to me, and the last thing I want is for her to develop the idea that she should ever feel obligated to allow others to cross them.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t shower our children with warmth and affection, and of course we as parents must touch our children in some way or another nearly every day, especially when they are young. I do believe we can have warm, loving relationships with them while still showing a deep consideration and respect for their bodily autonomy. Here are a few ways we can do this:

1. Be responsive

It may not always be practical to verbalize and specifically ask permission for every touch. This may even feel unnatural and burdensome in a relationship so close as that between parent and child, but it’s important to watch our children and stop short as soon as it becomes apparent that any type of touch may be unwanted. In these cases, we can reinforce the value that their comfort and feelings have by apologizing. I catch myself on this one often and have to say things like, “I’m sorry, I thought you wanted me to pick you up. I’ll remember to ask first next time.”

2. Ask permission

Yes, sometimes it is appropriate for parents to ask their children for permission. When it comes to issues surrounding their body, they’re in charge. Whether verbally or nonverbally, we can show children that how they feel about being touched is important by asking before planting a kiss or giving a hug. Sometimes stretching your arms out and giving them the chance to lean in first before offering a hug is enough, and other times it may make sense to ask directly, “May I have a kiss?”

3. Give warning

As parents, there are times when we need to touch our children, and quickly. For instance, Annabelle came up with a little game recently that she thought was awfully fun, and it involved running away from me in the train station. With the tracks mere inches away, I wasn’t going to waste time in asking for permission to pick her up, and I certainly wasn’t going to leave her to keep running, even if I saw that she wasn’t wanting to be picked up (most of the time she wasn’t). I talked with her directly and let her know that when I see her running away, I feel really scared because it’s my job to keep her safe and running near the tracks is very dangerous. I told her that if I saw her running away, I was going to pick her up, because I need to know that she is safe. In this case, it only makes sense for me to touch her, for her own safety, but she still deserves to know why I’m doing so. This way she’s not caught off guard, and she also has the opportunity to avoid being picked up by not running away.

4. Narrate

While some may think it’s a bit too much, this is my preferred way of interacting with younger infants. Of course they are unable to directly give permission, but I still believe they deserve to be consulted in actions surrounding their bodies. When picking them up, we can let them know what we’re doing and where we’re going. “I’m going to pick you up and take you to the couch so that I can offer you some milk.” When diapering or dressing them, we can talk through what’s happening and why, “I’m going to take your diaper off so that I can give you a fresh, clean one.”  How much this benefits them, I can’t say for sure, but I believe it’s a wonderful way of showing respect for the child’s right to know what’s happening with their body, and if nothing else helps develop an awareness on the caregivers’ part that will make it easier to respect the child’s bodily autonomy as they get older.

5. Discuss

It’s not possible to prevent every instance where an adult might touch a child in a way that is disrespectful. I know many strangers have reached in to touch Annabelle before I had the opportunity to do anything about it. We can only control so much, but what gets past us can be discussed later on. “I noticed that man squeezed your cheeks without asking.” These instances can be used as opportunities to help our children reflect on their feelings and see them as important. They’re also great opportunities for us to reinforce the idea that the child has the right to speak up anytime they feel uncomfortable.

Of course we can also work to prevent abuse, or increase the likelihood that our children will speak up about it by discussing what areas of the body are only for them to touch. We can use accurate terminology for body parts to make it easier for them to recount details if something does ever happen to them. We can be extremely careful about who we leave them alone with. There are a number of ways to heighten their awareness and engage in abuse prevention, but the first line of defense is a child who knows their boundaries and expects to have them respected. We can show our children that their bodies belong to them alone, and that their feelings are important well before conversations about good and bad touch are in order.

How do you help your child develop healthy boundaries? Have you ever had an awkward moment with an overzealous stranger? Any suggestions on how to deal with others gracefully while still respecting your child’s autonomy? I would love to hear from you!

56 Responses to Bodily Autonomy and Sexual Abuse

  • I found this post really thoughtful. We have a lot of trouble because we not only live in a very crowded city but travel a lot, and the simple truth is that cultural standards are very different about touching /feeding/parenting other’s children. I agree entirely in an ideal world with your guidelines, but I also don’t neccessarily want my children to pick up on my discomfort/judgment of certain other cultural practices (our children routinely move between 3 quite distinct groups in a regular week). I have certainly said no to other adults, but I’ve also been very thankful when traveling when other adults shared food with my child or picked her up (often in Asia), or sang songs to her (Italian restaurants) and I don’t want to end all of those interactions by making her terrified of people who look/smell differently.

    I will say that there are occasions when I think my job is to run interference. When my daughter when through a 2 month phase of stranger anxiety as a toddler (in part because a very nice man picked her up to carry her up the subway stairs against her wishes and actually tumbled with her. They were both fine, and since he did not speak English I was really at a loss as to how to prevent the whole situation short of just yelling, when he really was trying to help. I was out with 2 toddlers, a newborn, and my groceries and while it looks torturous to watch the kids do 3 flights of subway stairs I know that if I’m patient they can do it “by self”), I used to just shout “she bites” if anyone tried to carry her up stairs/help her off the bus/help her on playground equipment. It was our little joke since she thankfully does not bite, but it let her know that I was watching her even if my hands were full (new baby) and that she didn’t have to let people touch her.

    • melissa says:

      I really appreciate your view. You definitely have a lot of experience in this area! I definitely think there are times to simply sit, watch, and wait, and personally I would not necessarily interfere in every single instance. There were some girls on a recent flight who adored Annabelle and, while patting on the head and pinching cheeks is a giant pet peeve there was the issue of the language barrier, and Annabelle actually seemed to like them and not mind their touching her at all. I didn’t love the situation, but I was able to relax and not interfere, because as far as I could tell my daughter was comfortable. At one point, she even came over to me and said, “Wanting lady to touch my hair again.” To me, the biggest issue is the child’s comfort level, and as parents I figure we’re pretty skilled at assessing that. That situation in the subway is super tough, though! The language barrier adds a whole new level of difficulty.

  • Mudpiemama says:

    Just recently someone approached my three yr old and tried to tickle him, he yelled “hey that’s my body!” the person was totally taken aback and apologetic. My son was not thrilled with this interaction, we try really hard to be respectful, ask permission and warn much like your post suggests. I also found a pediatrician that is very respectful and narrates and asks before every examination.
    Elderly ladies are constantly touching my daughter and we both really dislike it, she also immediately turns away from them now.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

    • melissa says:

      Thanks for sharing that experience! You have obviously helped your son develop a strong sense of his boundaries. I honestly do think most people are well-intentioned, but have never thought through these very common behaviors. It can definitely help when a child feels comfortable speaking up. They’re much more well received than a seemingly overprotective parent.

  • This is a wonderfully written article. I’ve always felt deep-down, a need to protect my kids from the “huggers” abd “touchers”. My son has strawberry blonde long curly hair, and for years, people – completely strangers – have been touching his hair whenever we’re out. He doesn’t like it; and has talked to me about it. Sometimes it happens before I’m even aware, and I’ve felt terribly for not being a better defender of “well meaning” reach-out-and-touchers.

    I think, though, worse than the stranger patting on the fly (because you can easily talk about that one afterwards, wow that guy shouldn’t have reached out to your hair; I know you don’t like that), is the relative who just doesn’t get the message. When a baby doesn’t want to come to you, you don’t reach out to TAKE the baby. Period. I know I’ve offended many a relative, and it’s just more difficult, becuase family members seem to think it’s their RIGHT to hug/carry/hold an infant, but I’ve said, no thanks, and kept the baby in my arms.

    I don’t understand how people think it’s okay to touch others without asking.
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    • melissa says:

      That’s so true, Kelly. This sort of thing is especially hard with family members, who have an emotional investment in (and in their mind, often, an entitlement to) the baby or child. I definitely believe we have a right – in many cases an obligation – to say no thanks when our children are not able to do so for themselves.

  • Alex says:

    My only complaint is that when your daughter did not respond, you asked her if she was feeling shy. Why even say that? You’re labeling her behavior, where you could simply respond on her behalf. In other words, she shouldn’t have to provide any explanation for why she isn’t responding. In these circumstances, I will respond in an appropriate manner, acknowledging the individual that spoke to my son.

    • melissa says:

      Interesting perspective – thank you for sharing. To me, this was not labeling her behavior, but giving her a word for how she appeared, to me, to be feeling. At less than two, I consider this really important as she is just now finding a way to express what she feels. I can definitely see your point as well, however. Something to think about.

  • Thank you for this very important message! I have been noticing this more with my toddler… I think people don’t always know how to interact with someone of this age, and don’t know what to do when they don’t get a verbal response. Regardless of the reason, you are 100% right that children should not have to become accustomed to strangers touching them or invading their personal space. I’m going to share this with my readers now!
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    • melissa says:

      Thank you for sharing, Charise! I think you’re right on when it comes to people not knowing how to interact with a toddler at times, but like you say – regardless of the reason, children deserve to have their wishes and their space respected. I’m not alone on this!

  • Danielle says:

    I work at a childcare center, and one of the most important things I have learned is narrating. Children really do respond much better when they know what is going to happen.

  • Amy says:

    This topic is so thought provoking! What scary statistics! I always work to “narrate” (I like the term!) with Q-ball, but, of course, have human failings. You make great points in looking for the child for cues of the desire for physical contact. It’s something that can easily be forgotten- even (or especially) by AP parents, given that “Use Nurturing Touch” is a principle. It’s a perfect example of why no principle (or idea or concept or whatever for non-AP parents) should never be used in isolation. Thanks, as always!

    • melissa says:

      Oh, human failings! I have those, too!

      Great points on nurturing touch. I hadn’t thought about the connection there. It’s definitely tough when we want so much to love on our children and they’re needing space, but honoring their wishes is worth it in the long run!

  • Rach says:

    Thanks for a fascinating post. I must credit you for making me think about bodily integrity for toddlers in a previous post, and it is great to read your detailed thoughts on it. I would find it hard to ask an adult to stop touching her (I mean a pat on the head) but I think I would deal with it in a (probably dissembling way) of addressing myself jokily to B and saying “oh you don’t like being patted on the head”). I don’t seem to have any trouble pointing out to other children what she doesn’t like. Double standards.
    On the “shy” point, I read an interesting post from Teacher Tom on this a while back (http://teachertomsblog.blogspot.com/2009/11/shes-not-shy-shes-thoughtful.html).

    • melissa says:

      Thanks, Rach! I’m really grateful to you and a previous commenter for making me think more on the “shy” point. I love how posts like these help me improve and flesh out my own ideas. Will have to look at that Teacher Tom post – I know I saw it when he posted it, but it must not have sunk in. Thanks for sharing!

  • I’ve been thinking about this post all day! I am surprised by how affectionate I find myself wanting to be with my daughter — I had no idea motherhood would bring out such a smoochy side of me. :) She’s only nine months old, so it’s too early to start worrying about having her set boundaries with other adults and/or children, but I’ve already started thinking about it (she’s in a stage right now where she bestows “baby kisses” on everyone she meets, which is usually met with surprise from the newly-slobbered-upon!). I love your tip about “narration” and try to do that with her as often as I can. Great post!

    • melissa says:

      Thank you, Courtney! Having a sweet baby in their lives seems to turn even the most guarded person into mush sometimes. Getting free “baby kisses” can definitely add to that. It sounds like your daughter is in a really fun stage. I’m sure your thoughtfulness, even now, is going to serve her well in the future.

  • Cherith says:

    Wow! I guess older people probably do have a bit of a habit of touching littlies.. But as a general rule I never touch kids without their invitation… my hubby calls me a kid magnet but I’d really thought about the way you’ve put it. I don’t know that I agree with the whole ‘asking permission’ to touch your own child as it’s our responsibility to raise and train them. They learn how to act through us.. Although I definitely agree with you that kids should be allowed/encouraged to discourage other people touching them. But I strongly feel that kids should have different people in their lives that they can trust.

    • melissa says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Cherith. I think that in some situations asking permission makes sense, and in others being responsive is enough. Every child, and every parent is different!

      I agree with you that our children learn from watching us, and to me that makes respect for their physical boundaries all the more important since we’re setting the example for them on how to respect others and their own personal space.

      I definitely agree that children should have plenty of adults in their lives they can trust as well! It’s really up to them to dictate to the other important adults in their lives what is comfortable for them with respect to touch. As a parent, I don’t usually interfere with this unless I see something inappropriate – which has never happened.

  • Anna says:

    I think this is an important point for two reasons. One is that, as you point out, bodily autonomy is important whatever age and size the person. The second reason is that as children grow older they have to learn that everyone else have personal autonomy also. In my early elementary class of 6-9 year olds the younger children (and some of the older too, especially only children for some reason) have very poor understanding of this. If their personal space is infinged they are outraged but find it hard to understand that others feel the same. By teaching younger children that they have an impact on their family and friends, just as others have an impact on them, they learn to empathise. Empathy is far more that being concerned when someone is obviously hurt or upset – is includes understanding others’ points of view and less obvious feelings. It takes a long time to develop but narrating on behalf of other people – I see your friend did not like the man pinching her cheek, or, I can tell you that it hurt me when you ran your truck into my feet, teaches the child that they are not the only person to have these feelings and rights.

    As I say, this is mostly in the future for you and Annabelle!

    • melissa says:

      Thank you for your input, Anna! I’m really glad that you brought empathy into the discussion as that’s incredibly value as well.

  • maggie says:

    During my eldest daughters’ first pregnancy I was appalled at how many people thought it was ok to pat her stomach. I still cringe at the thought of it. I would not even pat her stomach unless she asked me to. Or I had said, “may I?”

    I think people probably just simply do not think.

    • melissa says:

      Ah, yes, that’s another one that can be bothersome! Hopefully by raising children with healthy respect for their own boundaries and those of others, we can eliminate that issue for the next generation ;)

  • Rachel says:

    We continue to teach our daughter that if she’s not comfortable with someone hugging or touching her, she doesn’t need to allow it. We had problems with a particular family member that felt we should not let her refuse their attempts at pinching or holding her. Pinching a 4-month-old and commenting about how pissed off she’s getting is not loving. And, there’s a reason she doesn’t want to go to you now that she’s bigger.

    We leave it up to her discretion whether she wants to hug, shake hands or not. I have yet to have anybody other than family try to pressure her into physical affection.

    • melissa says:

      It really does seem to be a much touchier issue with family. Good for you for sticking up for your daughter!

  • When Sebastian was an infant, I did a lot of narration without even thinking about it. It just felt natural, and I knew it was a good way to teach him language even while he couldn’t respond with words. Not to mention it saved my sanity when I had him for hours at a time by myself! Now that he’s older, I do my best to get his permission before kissing, hugging, etc., and I explain the what & why if I do pick him up unexpectedly. I try to approach it the same way as I would my spouse, which is mainly reading cues. I don’t necessarily ask my husband before I kiss him or grab his hand, but I can certainly tell when he wouldn’t appreciate me doing so. It’s rare that Sebastian isn’t game for some physical play and affection, which makes those times especially clear to me.

    The scariest thing about abuse is that it is typically committed by someone close to the child, someone they trust. Because of this, I am not sure that strangers keeping their hands to themselves (while appreciated, of course) makes a lot of difference.

    I can’t really think of a time where someone touched Sebastian without asking or without him initiating it. Not sure if people are just polite here or if I look intimidating. ;)

    • melissa says:

      Reading cues, and your example of the way you approach physical touch with your spouse makes perfect sense. Children absorb so much more than what we say, and I think they can gain a deep sense that they’re respected from the sort of responsiveness a relationship like that involves.

      It really is scary how much abuse is committed by someone the child knows and is close to. I think it’s definitely less what strangers do, and more the way we as parents respond to it that helps build our children’s ideas about who should be aloud to touch them and why. I do worry that when every adult in a child’s life, including the occasional stranger, takes the liberty of touching them whenever they see fit, they will build up a sense over time of adults’ rights to their bodies and the alarm bells won’t go off in the same way that they would with a child whose parents have always been responsive the way you are with Sebastian.

      While I’m sure the pats on the head and random cheek pinches alone don’t predispose a child to keeping quiet about abuse, I think the way we handle those situations with our children as parents will have a lot to do with the way they think about physical touch and their own rights to their bodies.

  • Amy at TIH says:

    This is great! Follows a theme we’ve been processing:
    http://tumbleweedinfanthouse.blogspot.com/2011/11/lets-talk-about-sex.html

    and the response of one of our amazing parents:
    http://coreparentingpdx.com/2012/raising-sexually-resilient-children/

  • Baida says:

    I am entitled to my daughter’s body the same way she is entitled to mine. Life is too short for asking permission to express love and as much as I agree with the concept in principle but the realities and application of it can also create distance and make playtime for instance an overly complicated task rather than fun! As for strangers, it bothers me yes but I am proactive in a positive way by observing her rather than get paranoid and build walls around her, she’s free to experience life..my job is to help her thrive naturally and able to cope inspite of its grim realities.

    • melissa says:

      Thanks for your perspective, Baida. I do have trouble with the word “entitled.” I need personal space sometimes, and I’ll be open with my daughter about that. I believe she deserves the same from time to time. If she does not want a hug, she does not have to give me one – I believe that very strongly.

      As for your statement that, “life is too short for asking permission to express love” I think we may not have understood one another very well. The five things I list at the end of my article are not meant to be taken together, but to be five different strategies, any one of which may be more or less suited to a single situation. As I said, “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t shower our children with warmth and affection” and “It may not always be practical to verbalize and specifically ask permission for every touch. This may even feel unnatural and burdensome in a relationship so close as that between parent and child…”

      I’m certainly not suggesting that we as parents should keep a distance between ourselves and our children, always stopping to ask before touching them in any way at all. What’s most important to me personally is not getting verbal permission all of the time, but simply being responsive to our children and their comfort levels, and honoring their need for space when it arises.

      As for your statement about strangers, I certainly believe in being proactive in a positive way as well, and do not feel that I’m paranoid or build walls around my daughter. I will, however, say something if I see that she is visibly uncomfortable and unable to find a way to express that. Sometimes a stranger pats her head and she’s not bothered in the slightest. Another time, a man kept reaching in to tickle her and each time she clung to me tighter, not wanting his touch at all. In this case, I feel it was my job to say something or smile and remove us from the situation, because my daughter was uncomfortable and it’s my job to protect her.

      Of course we all have different priorities and values as parents, and I don’t expect that every single person will agree with me, but on this subject I do feel strongly.

  • Natasha says:

    I suppose an alternative way to view this is to allow your child to be touched with love (unless they protest) and encourage it as much as possible so they know what loving touch feels like. The child who has had little interaction from strangers lovingly touch them might just grow up to be the adult, who when they experience sex for the first time, says ‘oh this must be love’. It is purely a cultural phenomenon, and I suspect an unhealthy one, to expect our children not be touched lovingly by others – for how else do they know what loving touch feels like? Through the limited scope of inner family? I am always enthralled when I am in the midst of new cultures and they take no shame in hugging her, dancing with her, picking her up when she falls and just openly showing her love. And dismayed the more I hear people complain when their child is lovingly touched, sigh.

    • melissa says:

      Thanks for a completely different take on the subject, Natasha. I really appreciate your point of view!

      I think we’re really in agreement here, but framing is getting in the way. I have absolutely no problem with loving touch when my daughter is comfortable. She has warm and loving interactions with people she knows well, and people she knows not so well, all the time. In public, she looks at me often and informs me that she’s “making friends” and she talks about the checkers from the grocery store like they’re her best friends. When she is smiling and happily interacting and they reach in to touch her in some way, I believe they’re being responsive. If they see, or I see that she’s uncomfortable with that touch they need to be responsive by stopping (if they notice) or I need to say something (if they don’t). All of that is loving. Love respects, and adapts, when someone is uncomfortable.

      The scenarios I speak of above involve strangers who ignore what I believe are blatant outward signs of discomfort and proceed anyway. I do not believe this is loving. As an adult, even in the context of my trusting, loving relationship, the exact same touch can be loving at one time and not so loving at another, depending on whether it’s welcomed.

      As participants in all kinds of relationships, we need to pay attention to one another and we’re thinking, feeling, and needing, and temper what we want to do based on that. I don’t have a problem with a virtual stranger dancing with my daughter if my daughter is in a place of enjoying and welcoming that interaction. I do have a problem with someone ignoring it when she stiffens up and gets a frightened, wide-eyed look on her face, and choosing to dance with her anyway simply because they want to. Consent is important, whether verbal or nonverbal, no matter the age of the person involved.

  • teresa says:

    Oh boy! This topic is very important to me too. I didn’t even like to read about Anabelle being in those situations. The thing is that the people are usually “well intentioned” as you say. I’ve also found that old people are more likely to have no sense about it. I like the idea of talking to her afterward if it’s not a situation that was big enough to really stop. How do you make a big deal out of a pat on the head, right? Maybe one thing would be to cut and run a bit when your child is clearly not into the connection. We just have to be hypervigilant so that they don’t have to yet.
    I’ve also noticed, especially as Melody has gotten older and I don’t have a really chubby, soft little one anymore, that I can absolutely understand the urge to reach out and touch, squeeze or even want to kiss one of the little creatures. I would never do it. I have that much sense, respect and control… but I’ve been surprised by the draw of it.
    I’ve literally laughed out loud at myself as I was so tempted one time at a fair where we were all mashed up together anyway.
    Melody has also gotten more private about her body and even though she is still mostly totally intimate with me, she told me I’m not allowed to just lift up her shirt and kiss her tummy anymore. I have to ask. It was hard at first because it was such a habit. But it’s also such a beautiful transition and I’m so honored to be part of it and to be able to empower her and reinforce her own sense of her boundaries.
    And sometimes she still says yes when I ask.
    Of course, she still can pull down my top and pat the boobies any time.
    ah well.

    • melissa says:

      I agree that talking afterward, and leaving a situation are both wonderful ways to honor our children and well-intentioned adults at the same time. Excellent points!

      It mostly sweet, but definitely a tad bitter to watch our own children grow up and really establish their boundaries. It’s so wonderful to see them coming into themselves in that way, but so hard to know they’re growing up and the dynamic between us and them is changing. Another reminder to get in all the snuggles we can while they’re welcomed, I suppose!

  • Lulu says:

    Interesting piece and comments are also thought provoking.

    I live in a country where complete strangers will touch my kids and sometimes me too {especially when my hair was dyed a lighter colour when I first came to live here in Japan} and it bothers me a lot.

    Having them talk about me or my kids as if we can not understand bothers me more though I think- but maybe that is because it happens more often than the touching. I wish I had a translation of your article to hand out to people that touch my kids.

    If it is someone we do not know at all {as in first time to see them} I will say “Please don`t touch them” {and at times I have to go as far to say “Please do not take photos of them with your phone”} but I am never sure what to do with people that we know somewhat socially like from the park or something or friends of my in-laws.

    People will pat the boys head, touch their hands or face and often make comments on their appearence {the fact that they are not “Japanese” although they are in fact Japanese…}

    Having worked with children in the past I will usually offer them something {say if we are outside and they approach me and my children} like a ball or a leaf if we are observing something on the ground. Otherwise I do not touch other peoples children unless they touch me.

    However…if a child falls over then I will often help them up if they seem to be getting upset. I also have no problems if someone does this for my children although both of them are usually fine and are up before anyone would get close enough to help them. I wouldn`t do this with a child I have never met/seen before though but I mean say if it happened at our local park and is a child I see on a regular basis who recognizes me. If they ever said anything about the fact they could get up themselves or if my presence was making them more uncomfortable {and it sometime can as I am not Japanese- even though I speak Japanese} then I would of course step back.

    Interesting comment above on how someone thought you were labeling her behaviour. I also see saying “Are you feeling shy” as giving her a name for her feeling and not her behaviour- I often say to my older toddler “Do you feel upset or angry” because he is unsure yet how to express his emotions with words and feel that this can help him in the long run.

    • melissa says:

      A couple of people brought up the cultural aspect of this issue on my personal facebook page, and the differing perspectives are so interesting. I can definitely see how being a non Japanese parent living in Japan could be incredibly difficult when it comes to the touching issue.

      Finding the line between respecting the culture of others and respecting your own values is such a touchy thing, and some have argued that it’s our job to adapt to the cultures we’re interacting with. That is something I agree with to a great extent, but when it comes to the rights and the needs of our children, I really think cultural norms are largely irrelevant. We need to honor the individual as well as the culture, and if the child is uncomfortable, those involved need to be responsive to that. I can definitely appreciate your tendency to say something when boundaries are crossed. That’s something I struggle with doing because I hate to offend, so I admire that ability.

      I really feel for you with the other struggles, too. To have people talking about you and your children with the assumption that you don’t understand has to be frustrating on so many levels. From everything I have read from you so far, it sounds like you do a beautiful job of navigating the difficulties that come along with living outside your culture of origin.

  • Heatherly says:

    As a mom to 2 “toe heads”, I find the touching of the heads infuriating. When my son, now nearly 7, was a toddler he would get touched on the head numerous times per day. And he was a feisty little guy that did not like to me touched in that manner so it generally lead to some sort of meltdown. At a certain point in time, I gave him verbal permission to say very loudly to the offenders “please don’t toouch me”. 9 times out of 10 they would look at me for some sort of apology and I would then be given the opportunity to tell the person to not touch people without their permission – even children! I mean, running your hands through someone’s hair is a romantic gestures, in some instances.

    Now my daughter is a toddler and does not stay still long enough to be touched but I already get comments about her hair. Don’t touch, people!

    • melissa says:

      “I mean, running your hands through someone’s hair is a romantic gestures, in some instances.” – Exactly! I love how you empowered your son to stand up for himself. I’m sure that as your toddler gets older, she’ll have a very strong sense of her boundaries as well. Thank you for sharing!

  • Jess says:

    I think so often people forget children are just little people, with their own feelings and thoughts. Feelings and thoughts that should be respected. I wouldn’t want some stranger who was making me feel uncomfortable to reach out and touch me, I would “creeped” out! Why should a two year old feel any different?!

    • melissa says:

      That’s exactly it, Jess! It’s incredibly eye opening to think about how our behavior toward children would be received if we directed it at an adult. Of course there are some instances where a completely different approach is required, but I feel like touching strangers is pretty cut and dry – if they turn away from you, leave them alone!

  • Willie says:

    I agree our attention and touch should not be forced on children or anyone else. We should be careful to pick up cues from the child or parent as to what makes them uncomfortable. One thing that makes me uncomfortable is when I speak to a child and they indicate no interest or shyness and then the parent proceeds to force the child to respond. I am perfectly willing to let it go but the parent continues to insist. I know they want to instruct the child in proper responses to others but I feel that such instruction could best be handled privately between the parent and child.

    I was raised in a culture where “a gentleman” never extended his hand to a female but only responded to the extended hand of the female. The same rule applied to males of superior age or rank. In this day of “hugging” congregations, I have found that applying these rules to hugs very helpful in knowing how to respond.

    • melissa says:

      That’s a great point, Willie. It can be very awkward to be on the receiving end when a child is urged, or even forced to interact. My personal belief is the same as yours, those situations are best handled after the fact, in private.

      It’s really hard when we don’t all come from the same place on these issues and its interesting that you bring up the culture within which you were raised. I suppose that has a lot to do with how many of us view these issues.

  • Sheila says:

    I totally agree. I remember, as a child, feeling very awkward and unsure when I was even addressed by a stranger. I’m sure not shy now!

    Here in the south, people — usually people I know, but not well, like ladies at church — will actually walk right up to me and KISS my son. He doesn’t really know what to make of that, and neither do I. It’s kind of too late to ask them not to when they jump right in and do it without thinking. When he was a baby, they would demand to hold him, too, and I wouldn’t let them. Instead of being rude by just saying “no,” I would look my son in the eye, ask, “Do you want to go to nice Mrs. So-and-so?” and make as if to hand him over. He would invariably bury his face in my shoulder and hold on tight. So I would shake my head at the person and say, “Ah, he’s feeling like staying with Mama right now.” No one was ever offended by this that I know of, though I did get kind of a reputation so that eventually people would say, “Oh, I know. You don’t let other people hold him.”

    I just wish people would take babies’ feelings into account. When my dad first held my son, he screamed his head off. I dived for him to get him back, and my dad said, “Don’t worry about it, I don’t mind.” I was like, “I’m not worried about YOU, I’m worried about the one who’s crying to get back to me!”

    Of course kids’ comfort level varies a lot. My own parents and younger siblings live in Korea and are always getting swamped by total strangers touching them, giving them candy, and taking their pictures. (They’re all towheads, and also there are not many children seen in public in Korea — much less a family of four kids.) The five-year-old eats it up. She puts on a little show for these people and LOVES to get her cheeks pinched and her hair stroked. The boys, though, all squirm away. I think both responses are okay and worthy of respect — though our culture only favors the outgoing response, and not the reserved one. Personally I prefer the reserved one, like my son has — it shows he is a little guarded with people he doesn’t know, and that he doesn’t feel the need to put on a show for every stranger. I like that about him. But if a child likes that kind of attention, I do think that’s okay too.

    • melissa says:

      “I just wish people would take babies’ feelings into account.” I feel exactly the same way! I don’t think there’s any one appropriate way to behave toward infants, but I do think they deserve to have their needs, wants, and comfort level honored. It’s fascinating, as they get older, to see how differently children respond to being touched, and I agree that whatever feels right to them is okay – within reason, of course. My own daughter clings to me at times and eats it up at others, but the point is that it’s up to her.

  • jaqbuncad says:

    This is really interesting to read. I’m very big on bodily autonomy, have been for both my kids – narrating/chatting at them all the livelong day, making sure that I ask for hugs and kisses (verbally, and also just body language, like opening my arms and waiting to see if they’ll come hug me), things like that. And I also come from a culture that is very physically demonstrative, especially with little ones; my Pinoy relatives are all huggers and touchers, and even Pinoys I don’t know (and other Asians, especially Chinese and Japanese) have approached my children and I in public and just been absolute founts of physical affection. It’s what I grew up with, and what I know, so it doesn’t bother me as much as I sometimes feel like it ought – the first time I came back home and told my partner about the Chinese couple who had held and played with Gemini at the beach, his jaw nearly hit the floor – but I always, always take direction from my kids. If they look worried, or if they tell me that they’re not interested, that’s their choice and I’ll reinforce that; conversely, if they’re taking their first steps toward the Pinay woman they just met at the bookstore (it happened with Libra), I’m happy to support them.

    • jaqbuncad says:

      Also, because this belatedly occurred to me – I was in the position of being a stranger today, at the local park where another mom with a five-year-old and triplets (around 18 months, maybe? small, though) who all promptly scattered in different directions. One of the triplets got stuck at the top of a rather tall slide, and since her mom was off chasing another triplet, I climbed up to the little stuck triplet and held out my arms to her, and asked if she would like me to carry her down to her mommy. When the little girl didn’t respond right away, I let her know that I wouldn’t pick her up if she didn’t want to be, and that I would be happy to stay nearby if she wanted to try to get back down by herself (because, after all, she’d got up there by herself). She seemed to weigh her options for a moment, then held out her arms to be picked up.

      When I handed her off to her mom it occurred to me that I might have just done a very strange thing, but then, if it had been my little stuck child while I was chasing down my other kid, I’d’ve wanted another nearby parent to have helped him get down, so. The mom seemed grateful, anyway, although they left shortly after that so maybe I freaked her out a little after all. :(

      • melissa says:

        It sounds like you were extremely sensitive, and are with your own children as well. I know you’re committed to bodily autonomy for your children, so I can see being a bit surprised at your own willingness to step back and allow for some stranger touch. It sounds to me like it’s all responsive and respectful, however. How funny that Libra made her first steps toward a virtual stranger! I find Annabelle’s interactions with new people really interesting, because with some she is clearly extremely uncomfortable, and holds onto me for dear life while with others she’s gregarious as can be and totally welcoming of pats and strokes on the cheek. Thinking about it, I guess standing back to allow them to enjoy that sort of touch is actually part of respecting their bodily autonomy. Regardless of what’s comfortable for me, it’s her body and her right to decide how she wants to let others interact with it. Of course there are lines, but that’s another issue…

  • Really great post, Melissa! I’m over here today from Anktangle’s Sunday Surf.

    We just had a situation yesterday at the doctor’s where Mikko didn’t want to take off his shirt and pants and underwear for the doctor to see his rash. Now, on the one hand, I want him to know that it’s ok for a doctor to see and touch his body. On the other hand, I felt comfortable that seeing some of his body was good enough in this instance, and I knew he was feeling overwhelmed by this strange situation. So we compromised in removing his shirt but leaving on the rest. I really do think touch is a matter of responding to what your kids are comfortable with and respecting that it’s their body and their choice, when possible. (Because obviously in some medical or, as you pointed out with the train station, safety situations, you as the parent might have to decide an unwelcome touch is still worth it.)

    I do try to stop touch with my kids when it’s uninvited and be respectful with other people’s kids and follow their cues, and this post has made me think more about how I might reinforce my kids’ rights to stand up for themselves in situations where people are not responding to their cues not to be touched. Thank you!

  • Amy W says:

    This is definitely thought provoking :) It’s been interesting reading the different comments and brought up an area that I’ve not put a great stock of purposed thought in to. I have 5 children, some aren’t the least bit nervous or shy about talking to someone new, and some tend to get shy very quickly, and I completely understand that – I am not drawn to be the initiator by any means when meeting someone new. In thinking about how my husband and I actually handle this, it’s very true that we don’t want others touching our children that we don’t know. I have no desire for someone I don’t know to put their hands on my child. The one exception I have made to that rule is with the case of elderly in a nursing home. The children I have that are more on the shy side are gently encouraged and reassured that it’s okay to shake a hand of an elderly man or give an elderly lady a hug, but are not forced – that is a scary situation and one that isn’t always comfortable for adults, much less children. But I do try to encourage that they be kind and as friendly as possible, and I have one child in particular who has no problem handing out hugs and hand shakes to anyone he sees, and I am glad he is comfortable, because that is an area that shows tenderness to people who don’t always get it. So I agree – we should be careful to let our children know that they don’t have to put up with someone reaching out and touching them, someone they don’t know and trust, because that is an invasion. There is one thing that my husband and I DID train our children to do, however. If we asked or told them to go with/to someone – we expected them to trust us and obey. We always talked to them and explained (over and over in some cases) that we would not give them to someone that we didn’t trust and if we told them it was okay, trust us! In cases of nursery/Sunday School in church, this was very important to us. That being said, we really meant it – we weren’t going to ask them to let someone hold them or take them to class etc if we didn’t really trust them. We are also very strong believers in teaching them to talk to someone when they are spoken to. When our children are little we do understand it’s hard to meet new people when you have a somewhat introverted personality, and often times we would hold them in our arms or go down to their level and put our arms around them as a way of letting them know we are still there to help them overcome this, but we also know we have a responsibility to teach our children respectful social manners, and we don’t want them to think it’s okay to ignore someone or refuse to talk to them on the grounds of not feeling like talking (or one day, possibly encountering the situation where they just ‘don’t feel like being respectful’ – we don’t want that mindset allowed at all, not when it would give them a chance to be okay with rudeness). :) Thanks again for the post!

    • melissa says:

      Thanks so much for your thoughts, Amy. I hope you don’t mind if I respectfully disagree with a couple of your points. I have had some wonderful discussions around this conversation, and differing viewpoints are always welcome here. I love a fresh perspective, especially from a parent more experienced than I such as yourself, so it’s interesting and valuable to hear what works for you.

      I definitely feel like a relationship of trust with our children is very important, but I think that trust needs to go both ways. I believe that children are extremely perceptive – sometimes even more perceptive than we are, and if they feel uncomfortable with a caregiver, or with any adult, I think it’s important to listen to them. Of course there’s a difference between not feeling like going to someone, and being completely terrified by them. We do need to let other caregivers help us at times, and sometimes that may mean empathically following through with a plan that’s new and uncomfortable. I do want my children to grow to trust themselves and their own intuition and sense of safety over me, so I think insisting that just because i believe someone is safe means they absolutely are could be a slippery slope. Obedience is not something I value or try to teach my children, though. We do set limits, and I do have expectations, but I also want my children to feel they can, respectfully, question me. I am not infallible, and neither is any authority figure. My hope is that my children will be brave enough to question authority figures who try to tell them to do something that doesn’t feel right for one reason or another, and that starts now, with speaking up when they’re not comfortable with something I’m asking. Some things are non-negotiables, but it never hurts to ask.

      It sounds like you have found various ways of supporting your children that are consistent with your values, and like politeness is very important to you. I totally respect that. Personally, I feel like modeling is the most effective tool we have as parents who wish to help our children learn respectful communication. I don’t worry so much about speaking when spoken to, but prefer to model polite and enjoyable interactions with all kinds of people, and stay more or less out of the way while my children interact authentically in their own way. I don’t feel like they, or I, owe everyone who speaks to us a response, either. There are situations, cat calls come to mind, when someone speaks to me in a way that’s rude and disrespectful, and the best response I can think of is simply to say nothing. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, right? I have never been one to prompt my child to say please and thank you, or even hello and goodbye. I just take care to model these things myself, and every day I see that it’s working. To the grandparents, she’ll say, “Love you, bye!” To friends when we part she’ll say, “It was nice to see you!” and at dinner each evening she’ll ask her dad, “Dad, how was your work today?” It’s really a joy to see this arise from her in her time, and she doesn’t feel any pressure or force from anyone else.

      Of course my way isn’t necessarily the right way, but it’s what works for us!

  • Amy W says:

    I hope I didn’t come of as debative – I appreciate being able to read something that causes me to think at a different angle :) I don’t mind you disagreeing, and I hope it doesn’t bother you that I do, either. I still greatly appreciate this post, and I look forward to reading more from you, as I am new to your blog.

  • Annie says:

    I personally have never been a hugger – even with family and friends, and it really damaged relationships with some of my family members who forced me. I just never felt comfortable around them, even when they weren’t trying to hug me. I also found that baby-talk went hand in hand with unwelcome hugs, and that was something I always struggled with. I was a rather early speaker with a big vocabulary, and baby talk always made me feel like I looked dumber than I was, as though I was not capable of understanding average speech.

  • Jennifer says:

    I’m very late reading this post, I’m trying to look for Montessori-inspired conversations about body safety.
    I think something important and incredibly uncomfortable to note for most people is that children do not always know the difference between loving touch and sexual touch, and its important to be very clear about both “unwanted touch” AND private parts, because offenders often groom their victims and they don’t necessarily think of inappropriate touch as unwanted when that grooming has occurred. My daughter is two and knows the proper names for her body parts, we do not ever use cutesy names, and she knows that there are only five people (grandparents, Mama, and doctor) who can ever see her without underpants or help with bathroom things, if needed, and that she always can ask for privacy. I have actually encouraged her inclination to become very territorial about bathroom privacy.

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