My daughter, at only two years old, is a child who owns herself from head to toe. Before I became a mother, it never occurred to me that children are autonomous little people and not personal belongings of their parents. But as âBeanâ grows and asserts herself more often, Iâm learning that she is a force of her own will. So whatâs the problem? The rest of the community sees her as a doll, not a person.
It was easy to overlook my daughterâs personhood while she was an infant and couldnât speak. As a toddler, however, she can state definitively what she does and doesnât want. And one thing sheâs certain about is this: she doesnât want you touching her without her permission.
And by âyou, â I mean everyone, including her own mother. Bean has these brown chipmunk cheeks that invite nibbles and kisses. One day, I leaned in to plant a smooch on her face, and she cried, âNo kiss!â I looked at her in surprise and then I kissed her cheek anyway. Iâm the parent, right? The ensuing meltdown was epic. She was genuinely upset that I disobeyed her wishes.
The incident wasnât isolated. If I hugged her without warning, she would push at my chest, âNo hug, Mommy! No hug!â
I admit that her rejection stung for a while once I realized she wasnât being playful. I wondered what I, an enthusiastic hugger, would do with a child who shunned my affection. What child doesnât want to be held by her mother? Her growing independence meant she could identify when she wanted to accept physical touch and communicate that.
To my embarrassment, that communication also extended to her interactions with other people. The more she becomes self-aware, she grows wary of people she doesnât know. She stares, unsmiling, at their grinning faces and refuses to say âHiâ on command. And if they touch her, she recoils as if their hands are dirty. This embarrasses them, so they try harder. I have offered excuses for her behavior and hurried her away more times than I can count.
But it occurred to me to treat my daughter like an adult person when it comes to physical contact: respectfully. I asked her one day, âMay I give you a hug?â She nodded and threw her arms around my neck. I even got a free kiss out of the deal. When I respect her boundaries, she is affectionate on her own terms and shows love in a way that feels natural to her.
Thatâs not to say that she always tells me yes. Sometimes, the answer to my question is still, âNo hug, Mommy!â I have learned not to take her declination personally. After all, itâs not about me, is it? What message would I be sending if I showed her that her own mother did not care to honor her (very reasonable) wishes? She is teaching me that I am not entitled to her body, as I hope to teach her in regards to sexual relationships in the future.
We often discuss the problem of entitlement in regards to womenâs rights, but children are treated like community property from the womb. People intrinsically feel they have the right touch your belly because youâre merely the pack mule for the precious bundle inside of it. The intrusion doesnât cease after birth. Some random woman once touched my babyâs face while I was grocery shopping and I was livid at her presumptuousness.
A stranger touching your child is an easy target for parental wrath. But what about those closer to you like church members, neighbors, and family members? Last month one well-meaning neighbor spent a full five minutes trying to tickle my daughter and make her smile. Not once in those five minutes did she listen to the express âNo!â and non-verbal cues Bean exhibited. That will not happen again.
I have come to the conclusion that as a parent, it is my responsibility to tell others to respect my daughterâs boundaries. I must be her fiercest, most vocal advocate until she is old enough for people to stop seeing her as a doll and value her autonomy.
Friends, family, and citizens of the world: Donât hug or kiss my daughter without asking. I am no longer apologizing for her behavior toward you. If she says no, sheâs not âprecociousâ or âsassyâ; she is a small person who has the right to say no to being touched. And if you fail to comprehend her very clear wishes, or even her unclear ones, I will be more than happy to translate toddler language into a very adult conversation with you: Stop touching my kid.
Dara Mathis is a freelance writer, editor, and poet who lives in Georgia with her husbandÂ and daughter. Â Her writing interrogates the politics of respectability for women, concepts of femininity, motherhood, and the intersection of race and gender. You can catch her tweeting reckless acts of punctuation on TwitterÂ @dtafakariÂ and atÂ daratmathis.wordpress.com.