Maybe You Start 'Em Young: Boundaries

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I was out getting breakfast with my goddaughter when a dude just poked her in the belly.
“Aren’t you the cutest little girl?” he asked.  My goddaughter was adorable, as she is now; she was also nine.  And the dude reached over, patted her tummy affectionately, and moved on.
We sat down, chatted with the waitress, got some orange juice.  And I kept waiting for my goddaughter to complain.  Some asshole just invaded her private space.  He just touched her without her permission in a crowd, like she was some kind of breathing doll to play with as he saw fit.
But she just shrugged.  It was obvious she hadn’t felt complimented by the dude; her response to pokey-man was perhaps the most lifeless “thank you” I’d ever heard from her, and my goddaughter is a spotlight-stealer, thirsty for every drop of attention you can rain on her.  When she’s happy you’ve paid attention to her, she beams and does dances to get more attention.  (Seriously.  Kid goes to dance classes.  She will drop the beat at the slightest provocation.)
Instead?  Meh.
I eventually asked her about it, and she shrugged again.  “Old guys do that,” she informed me, in the same sense that she might inform me that teachers gave homework.  Not a thrill, to be sure, but what could you do?
And I thought back to my boyhood.  Couldn’t remember any stranger ever just touching me against their will because they approved of my look.  Aunts, sure, uncles, sure, but never just someone “HEY! CUTE BOY! LEMME PINCH YO CHEEKS.”
Whereas for my goddaughter, well, at nine – nine – that’s just the sort of shit she had to deal with.
You could say that’s my childhood memory being poor, which it is, but… I also don’t recall women just sneaking pinches of my butt in crowded elevators, or grabbing me at bars.
As a dude, I have a pretty set autonomy over my body, and I haven’t really had to reinforce that.  Whereas I know a lot of women who if they wear the wrong thing in public – or sometimes, if they don’t – they’re gonna have some dude grabbing them without even asking them if this is something they want.
And I think of the struggle a few of my friends who are parents have.  They inform their relatives that yes, little Dora is three years old… but if she says she doesn’t want to hug you, she doesn’t have to.
Grandparents get pretty put out by that , when the kid doesn’t wanna hug him goodbye.  That’s what Grandparents get!  They get hugs!  Because the child is adorable, and what adorable children are for is to satisfy the needs of the Grandparent!
Yet realistically, I think you have to start them young.  It seems ridiculous, taking a kid who would drink bleach without a second thought and saying, “Okay, you get to make decisions about who gets to touch you, and when.”  Especially when there are times when the kid doesn’t have an inalienable right to bodily control – you got to have that diaper changed, girl, whether you think it’s a big deal or not.
Because I think all kids need to learn boundaries: that you do, in fact, have control over what happens to you.  And that people touching you randomly just because they want to isn’t something you have to tolerate.
And on one level, it’s a pretty silly line in the sand to draw.  I mean, shit, so Grandpa wants a hug.  The kid’s little.  She’s moody.  She’s rude.  Pick the kid up and shove her into Grandpa’s arms!
On the other hand, I think it’s a fractal lesson that girls in particular need to learn: this flesh you own?  It is yours.  Nobody has a right to access it unless you have explicitly granted them permission.  If someone takes that right from you and touches you, you have a right to get angry.
Because on one level, patting my goddaughter’s tummy is just a show of affection, what’s the big deal?  But on another level, the level that few people like to process, it’s telling her that My desires can override your desires without a moment’s notice.  It’s telling her that her opinion isn’t worth asking.  It’s telling her that she’s on display to entertain others.
That’s a a fractal lesson.  Because on the one hand, I can try to have an awkward breakfast conversation with my goddaughter about feminism and bodily rights and subtle messages… and she won’t really get half of that.  (Trust me, I know.  Nine-year-olds wanna talk more about Arianna Grande’s voice than they do weird topics like that.)
But if I tell her that nobody has the right to touch you without getting your permission, then all those other hidden messages get subverted automatically.
I don’t know.  I thought it was weird at first, when my friends said “No, Dora gets to decide if she hugs you.”  And it was sad, when I really wanted to scoop that kid up in my arms and feel that glory of the little kid hug around the neck.  It felt sort of anticlimactic, getting a wave goodbye instead.
But sometimes I don’t wanna hug people goodbye.  And I have the option to go for the handshake or the wave.
So what if she’s three?  So should she.

9 Comments

  1. Sara M. Harvey
    Nov 28, 2014

    Excellent post.
    I have had GREAT success with all family and friends with B’s bodily autonomy. Shocking and surprising success, down to having her picture taken.
    If she says no, she doesn’t want to hug you, smile for your camera, talk to you on the phone, or interact with you in anyway, that’s ok. The most she gets from me is a reminder or gentle cajoling if this is going to be the last or only chance she gets to have that experience (because I have had her crying all the way home in the car when she changed her mind and didn’t get to hug uncle so-and-so before we left the Christmas party), and sometimes she changes her mind, but mostly she doesn’t and that’s ok.
    With EVERYBODY.
    And I am both thrilled and absolutely taken aback by it.
    She is also ok with telling strangers where her boundaries are. Sometimes she lives to hug the Starbucks barista or the salesgirls at Lush and othertimes, she would prefer not to make eye contact and she will tell them, politely but firmly, not today.
    Totally thrilled and taken aback by her too.
    No one has yet attempted to touch her without her permission, especially not some random stranger, I’m not sure how she would react, but I have very little doubt she would tell them that was NOT OK. Because at nearly four, she doesn’t quite have that unwritten but widely accepted social nuance just-go-along thing happening, and I’m not sure I want to instill that into her too deeply. I want her to be able to take a stand about her bodily autonomy even if the other party is going to be aghast at how “rude” she is.

  2. Reece Butler
    Nov 29, 2014

    “Rude” = “you are not doing what I want”.
    “Be nice” = “do what I want”.
    Oh, hello, no!
    A person who is uncomfortable can be as polite as they are, from “no, thank you” all the way to a scream and physical blow to escape. And that is OK!
    If kids learn they have the right not to be touched, then maybe they’ll listen to their feelings when they’re uncomfortable. And maybe one day they won’t let that person touch them a bit without reacting, which leads to more, and maybe even to date rape.

  3. Yet Another Laura H
    Nov 29, 2014

    Nine is DEFINITELY old enough to be told, “If someone touches you in a way that makes you suppress a cringe, look that person in the eye and call him or her on it.”
    It may feel uncomfortable to do so, but she would, in the long run, be doing the fellow a favor. If he continues to touch little girls in icky ways, sooner or later, someone’s going to hit him with a broom.
    I’m mildly surprised at your experience as a male of not being touched without consent. I never thought about it that way… very telling.

  4. Marie Vibbert
    Nov 29, 2014

    Y’know? I can’t remember a time when strangers weren’t touching me in public. “Look at the twins!” “Wow your hair is long!” Great… put it down?
    I think you’re right – girls are socialized from a very early age to put up with this. And no one even thinks about it.

  5. Mon
    Nov 30, 2014

    Yesterday I read an interview with Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) who was told by the interviewer that it was hard to think of him as a sexual being because seeing him grow up on screen. His response was ‘The male population has had no problem sexualizing Emma Watson (Hermione) immediately.’
    For Ariana Grande, her song ‘Bang Bang’ has been praised as an anthem for female sexual liberation, what I hear is a song about ‘leave your good girl, I’m a slut and that is what every man wants’, which is shaming towards girls that don’t put sex first and reduces men to creatures that only value sex.
    I have listened to preteens and teenaged girls think it’s cute or sweet when these non-consensual shows of affection happen, because that is a sign they are desirable. Some even think of these events as romantic.
    We are still in a society that values girls as sexual objects first, people second. And this starts early. If children are not taught at an early age that their consent is worth acknowledging and caring about, it will be a lost cause to try to teach them when they are on the cusp/become sexual beings

  6. lucscarolinajoy
    Dec 2, 2014

    linked to this from another blog, i “loved” the other, this one is visceral. this one i feel. as a former child, as a redhead, as a plaything…when all you want to do is push away and aren’t “allowed to”, as a child without words or autonomy…bombarded with unhealthy messages…all you can do/all you can be as a genuine adult is give her options, give her choice, give her a voice until she finds her own.

  7. Leslie Bond
    Dec 2, 2014

    It’s possible to have age-appropriate conversations with kids about bodily autonomy, and should happen as soon as possible! Especially girls, who need the confidence to speak up for themselves when it comes to consent–they need to know that, 100%, THEY get to decide who does what to them (cultural conditioning doesn’t place the same expectation of other people owning your body onto boys/men).
    I had that conversation with my tweenage stepson. He didn’t want to go to church with his grandparents because the other old ladies pinched his cheeks. When I told him that it was his face, and if he didn’t want them to touch it, it was totally 100% OK for him to tell them so (politely, because they were old church ladies used to pinching his cheeks: “Please don’t touch me, Mrs. Churchlady, I don’t like being pinched.”), and that that applied to any situation where he didn’t want to be touched, he was absolutely shocked at the thought that HE was in control of HIS body. That he didn’t HAVE to let people pinch/hug/touch him if he didn’t want them to.
    Even at 9, a kid can understand that she doesn’t have to let other people invade her personal space, and stand up for herself.

  8. todykins
    Dec 3, 2014

    you are right, but i think you need to take this a step further
    she is nine. she should be taught that yes, she has the right to tell people not to touch her.
    but, conversely, she is nine; she has the right to be protected by the adults who are responsible for her. she needs to see those behaviors modeled for her… she was clearly uncomfortable with the touch and as her guardian-at-the-moment, you were well within your right to look that man in the eye and say, “excuse me”.

  9. Dawn
    Dec 4, 2014

    Thank-you for this post. I wrote about the slightly other perspective, which was teaching my son to respect that others had the right to choose if they wanted to give/respond to his affection. Because as much as we need to teach how to set boundaries, we also need to teach how to respect another’s boundaries.
    https://behindstarbursteyes.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/autonomy-is-an-intrinsic-right/

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. “So Why Didn’t You Do Anything?” | Ferrett Steinmetz - […] other day, I wrote about an incident with my goddaughter, wherein we were at a restaurant when a strange…
  2. The Cold, Hugless Dystopia of the Future: I’ve Been There | Ferrett Steinmetz - […] once complained about a stranger touching my goddaughter’s belly without consent, and suggested that perhaps young children should be…

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