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.”
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.