Can I Tickle You?

I find myself starting to miss being warm sometime in January...

I find myself starting to miss being warm sometime in January…

Way back when Jetpack was cute and chubby and two years old, we were at the neighborhood sandbox, and Jetpack wanted to give someone a hug. He toddled over to the (older) Girlchild, who pushed him away and cried. Her mom explained that Jetpack was trying to be nice, and that it was okay for him to give her a hug.

Jetpack was definitely trying to be nice, but Girlchild didn’t see it as nice. She saw it as an intrusion of a stranger on her personal body space. And her mom explained to her that strangers are allowed in her personal body space.

We coerce our children into hugs and kisses and tickles. We force our kids to hold hands with strangers, or talk to them, and at the same time tell them to be careful. We expect our children to toe the line between “behaving nice” and “staying safe,” as if we as adults even know how to do that, as if there’s prescribed dance steps toward appropriate bodily autonomy.

“Childhood is not just a psychological state, but also a social status – and a very lowly one at that. Take one example: the frequency with which children are touched by adults. The amount of unsolicited physical contact people receive is a good indication of relative social position. It has been observed that bosses touch workers, men touch women and adults touch children much more than the other way round. To touch one’s social superior without good reason is an act of insubordination. Think how frequently children are shaken off when they use touch to attract an adult’s attention, and how that same adult can freely take hold of the child, adjust his or her hair, cut short his or her activities.“ (Stevi Jackson, 1982) *

Jetpack is now required to ask people if they want hugs. (He forgets sometimes, especially with close family members, but he also often forgets to close the front door, that he has a cup of water already, that he’s got shoes on. It’s an upward battle.) Often times parents laugh uncomfortably, and adults puzzle at his polite requests to hug them. But just Friday, at preschool, one of his friends didn’t want a hug, and pulled away and shook his head when Jetpack asked. And that’s okay.

A few weeks ago, Jetpack and I were walking down a pedestrian-heavy road. An older man smiled. “Aren’t you cute! What’s your name?”
Jetpack shrunk back against my side, hand gripped as if his very life depended on it. I shrugged.
“I guess he’s feeling shy today.”
It is the Tyler and my standard response when he doesn’t want to talk to someone. Afterward, we sat on a bench, and I asked him why he was feeling so shy.
“I just didn’t want to talk to anybody,” he pouted.
I paused. “Well, you don’t need to talk to people when you don’t want to. Just let me know and we’ll just keep walking, okay?”

An acceptable answer for a three-year-old. An acceptable answer for me, though in thinking about and researching this post, I came across the following comment (the rest of the entry [Bodily Autonomy and Sexual Abuse] is really worth reading, and includes a helpful step-by-step on helping children achieve bodily autonomy, though it is a tiny bit triggery):

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.

I can understand not agreeing with the commenter, but I think I personally do. Labeling the (totally understandable and normal) reaction of “I don’t want to talk to this person” as “shyness” (arguably) turns personal choice and personal autonomy into a pathology. And I, as Jetpack’s dad, have been turning his moments of personal choice into a pathology—as if not wanting to be around a stranger is a strange, wrong, bad thing.

And it’s not. It’s just another symptom of the way in which the systematic degradation of society does a disservice to us all, even white (for now, assumably) male (for now, assumably) cisgendered children.

In a now-famous quote to Parade Magazine, the magnificent Will Smith says:

“We let Willow cut her hair. When you have a little girl, it’s like how can you teach her that you’re in control of her body? If I teach her that I’m in charge of whether or not she can touch her hair, she’s going to replace me with some other man when she goes out in the world. She can’t cut my hair but that’s her hair. She has got to have command of her body. So when she goes out into the world, she’s going out with a command that is hers. She is used to making those decisions herself. We try to keep giving them those decisions until they can hold the full weight of their lives.”

It’s a quote I love, not only because it’s a rocking supportive quote from a dad, but also because it brings ideas of bodily autonomy into a strong, real world context, and it’s a damn positive one at that.

Compare it to this post titled “Will Your Son Be A Rapist?” There’s lots of interesting links on there, and a (understandably) frightening title, and an idea—how do we stop our children from raping—that needs to be addressed. The post addresses things like talking to our kids about sex (big thumbs up), and talking to our kids about not making disgusting rape jokes (huge fucking thumbs up) and the culture we’ve built up around rape in this country.

But I don’t really feel like starting from a hypothesis that my boy-oriented child will grow up to be a potential rapist is good for him, or anyone else. Because he might be raped. I don’t want to pretend that that’s not a thing that happens because it is a thing. But we so often think about bodily autonomy in children as a thing that girls need and boys have. We look at boy children and we don’t worry about whether they want us to touch their hair or tickle them, but we look at girl children and we worry about their safety.**

I don’t want to focus on teaching my son to not be a rapist. I need to focus on teaching him that he is not an under class because he’s small and young. I want to teach him that he is a person that has a body, and that he has a right to be touched when he wants to be touched and not touched when he doesn’t. And I think that I will teach him that it’s the same for other people—but that if I teach him HIS OWN bodily autonomy, that the bodily autonomy of the other children on the playground and the other teenagers at the party should come much, much, much more naturally.

“Can I tickle you?”
“No. Yes! No. Tickle me only when I say chocolate, and stop when I say toast.”
“Okay!” I hold my hands out at the ready and we grin at each other.
“Chocolate!” He squeals the word, and I dive in with finger tips to ribs. He wiggles and almost instantaneously shouts, “Toast!” I stop. He gets back into position. “Okay, now tickle me when I say poopy and stop when I say orange.”
I internally sigh, because the potty language is such a pain lately. “Okay.”
“Poopy!”

I really like this post of Raising My Boychick’s, Ten Tips For Tickling Without Trauma. Go read it if you have a kid. Go read it if you’ve never been around a kid. Go read it if you’re a school teacher or an aunt or any other human being.

This is a little harder to read—or anyway, as a survivor, I find everything having to do with the tragic happenings at Penn State hard to read—but please do. Now Give Your Uncle A Kiss.

I don’t think there’s one way to raise your child. I don’t think your child is going to grow up to be raped or a rapist or anything ridiculous like that if you over tickle them, or if you make them give Creepy Aunt Sally a hug. I do think that as a parent, as a dad, I have very large responsibility to my child. I think you, as a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, role model, caregiver, or random imposing adult on the street, also has a responsibility to children you encounter. Your responsibility is to respect their space and their feelings and to not treat them as an under class.

As a white male person, I wield more privilege in a lot of situations. As my kid is a white male person, he’s going to have privilege that he needs to learn the meaning of, an understanding that the bodies of others belong to them. And he’s going to, at times, be a vulnerable person in situations where teaching him that his body is his is super, super important. So let’s teach our children to be meaningful in their physical space, powerful in their defenses and respectful of each and every creature around them.

*Thank you to Kate for scoring this quote for me!

**In researching this post, I found few-to-no blog posts about the fear that our CHILDREN might be abused, and handfuls and handfuls that our DAUGHTERS might be. I don’t in any way want to vilify those parents, because I get it. I really do. But I think we need to take the conversation further.

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Guest Post: Super Sperm!

This post is a submission by a guest author who wishes to remain anonymous. To submit your own guest post, click here.

My partner and I are shopping for sperm. With all the sperm available out there in the world, you would think this would be easy. Cismen unload that stuff in frenzied sessions all year long. They literally throw sperm away all the time. But when we asked our good friend for a bit of his sperm so that we could try to have a baby, he said no.

I’ve never felt that my body was lacking something the way that I feel it right now. In the past, if I wasn’t able to change something about my body with available options presented to me, I could make peace with that. Somehow, this feels different. This would not be an “accident” baby. This baby is well thought out; names meticulously considered, lists compiled of anti-racist baby books, theories on how to talk to our child about trans stuff, should we make baby food or buy baby food?*, what happens if I get bored or isolated as a stay at home father?, how much screen time should they have, etc. You get the point. This kid is well planned for…..now we just need the kid.

We approached Kyle with compassion and neutrality. We did not beg for his sperm, nor did we make it overly emotional. He felt honored that we asked, but he quickly said no. He wanted his own children in the future, and felt that having a child who was “sort of” his would mess up something, emotionally, for his future kid. We respected his choice, of course. But that left us with the real problem of sperm. We do not know any other cismen that we feel comfortable being a known donor to our child. That simple “no”, however we love and respect Kyle, just cost us a minimum of $1,000 worth of: anonymous vials of sperm, trips to the doctor, and any insemination costs not covered by insurance – then multiplied by however many times needed to get pregnant. What an expensive rejection!

I went through several days of depression while I sorted out my feelings. I felt embarrassed that I had to ask another man for his sperm. Angry that he put some theoretical child of the future as a larger priority than his good friends’ current situation. Considering the costs of sperm banks, I felt anxious that we wouldn’t get pregnant right away and the costs would be too much with subsequent attempts. I felt angry that he can make sperm and I cannot. I feel angry that he has the choice whether to give his sperm away or not. I wanted to write this post in a letter form, addressed to Kyle, but I think that he’s been at the center of my brain for long enough. We are not waiting for anyone else to be part of this path to parenthood. Whatever the outcome, we are doing this together. I just hope we get lucky with some awesome anonymous sperm that does the trick! Hopefully at this time next year, I’ll be wiping up drool and longing for the days when I could sit down to write a blog post about sperm.

* Make!

There is No Closet Around a 3-Year-Old

Jetpack's First Sledding Adventure

Jetpack’s First Sledding Adventure

My kid, Jetpack, thinks our family is the coolest thing ever. Last week, he had some routine bloodwork done. We sat down in the phlebotomist’s chair, and she began tying a big rubber band around his arm.

“Is this your daddy?” The woman is older, hard of hearing, generically pleasant.

“Yes. I have two daddies!” He shouts. Everything with a 3-year-old happens loudly. The middle-aged man at the nearby chair stares. The phlebotomist smiles at him.

“Well aren’t you lucky! What’s your daddy’s name?” (He goes on to explain both of our names, and his, and talk about his aunt’s ferrets, all before she manages to poke him. He completely confused the poor woman).

Passing has been a relatively new thing for me, and a double edged sword. Being read as a man, rather than a really butch woman, is a new thing. More complicated is that everyone reads me as a straight man, rather than a gay one. I don’t know how that happened, really.

Luckily, Jetpack has kept me honest. He’s called me dad almost as long as he has talked. And he’s corrected people for that long, too. At the park, to the other kids. “No, that’s my dad. I don’t have a mom.” Since before anyone else could understand all those words tumbling from his tiny lips. He’s always been quite verbal, naming his articulating end loader and his shirt with the styracosaurus to anyone who will give him a second’s attention.

And he will loudly respond, when people inevitably ask.

“Is that your daddy?”

“Yes! I have two daddies!”

There’s no closet around a 3-year-old.

It’s not like I’m ashamed, of course. If I was, I probably wouldn’t be writing on here. It’s just hard to drop it into conversation without seeming awkward. I was on the phone with a potential new landlord the other day. He was asking about the members of my household—a pretty legitimate question—and I referred to my partner repeatedly with masculine pronouns, and he—repeatedly—responded with feminine. “He works at [job].”

“Oh, she works at [job]?” Over, and over.

And then on our second phone call, “What’s your wife’s name?”

“Tyler.” Followed by an awkward silence. (We didn’t rent from him).

If I’d been my 3-year-old, I would’ve just shouted “NO he’s a BOY!” I don’t feel like I was exactly closeted at the time, but I definitely had more social awkwardness then Jetpack, for better or worse. We could probably all learn from the toddler lack of shame.

Like his pronouncements of potty-related activities (parents and caregivers of toddlers, you know what I mean), it seems a little inappropriate at times. Like when he shouts it to little old ladies at the grocery store. “I have two daddies!” On the other hand, at least he’s proud of us. In a year or three I won’t be able to kiss his cheek in public without blushing and grumbling and whining, and once he’s hit the double digits he’s probably going to spend a couple of days a year wishing none of us had ever been born.

But for now Jetpack is a very happy guy. He’s overjoyed to hold our hands in public—he likes “making a chain”—and hugging and kissing and shouting “I have two daddies!” to everyone who will listen. And there I will be, smiling nervously, hoping no one ever takes him off of his cloud.

There’s no closet around a 3-year-old—just a tiny room that’s good for locking the cat in, playing hide-and-seek, and jumping out at unsuspecting old ladies.

(I would love to read some similar stories–in what ways have your children brought your information out to air? I imagine a lot of us have some hilarious [and maybe not-so-funny] stories…)