There are many people who want attention from my children. Why wouldn’t they? My kids are cute and say adorable things. My daughter’s smile will light up your life if you are lucky enough to be on the receiving end. Her “I love you” will melt you, I promise. My son will hug you with such gusto that he’ll swallow you whole. He’ll entrust you with thoughts surprisingly insightful beyond his years and your eyes will widen with amazement. If you earn their adoration, your heart will soar with joy.
But they might not give you any of those things. And I won’t make them.
You may be family, or friend, or stranger, it doesn’t matter. Every kid might normally love you, I’m certain of it. If I feel safe, I will smile at you, chat with you, and laugh with you. We’ll bond over how much joy can be found in these wonderful youth. If I care about you or love you, I will hug you and show my children how wonderful you are. And maybe they will open up. But, maybe they won’t. And, just as my interactions were my choices, that is up to them.
Perhaps you will be like most people, and you will smile and say “of course, in their own time.” You won’t push, and if they are especially shy or uncertain, hiding behind my skirt, you’ll smile at all of us, wave good bye and walk away. Or you’ll keep your distance until you find some wonderful way to bond with them and give them cause to open their hearts freely to you. Because you’ll know what I know: that children deserve respect and space.
But, maybe you won’t.
Maybe you’ll look at me and think that we are rude, that I should encourage or demand social niceties. Maybe your longing to interact with my children will drive you to demand, pushing some expectation of respect for elders upon my children. Or maybe you just won’t understand, and coercion will be your next approach, whatever it takes to get that snuggle fix.
This is when I will step in. But not to help you, no. This is where I will ask or determine my child’s emotions and I will redirect us or them away. I will speak kindly for them, “he’s not comfortable right now,” and leave it at that. We will move on to another part of the store, or house, or wherever we happen to be.
It’s not because I don’t love you or care about you. I know you just want to love them. I might even feel a little sad for you that you didn’t get that award-winning smile or hug. It is a loss, I know it. Sometimes, even I lose. But it’s not my job to take care of your sadness or hurt feelings. It’s not my job to teach my children to care more about you than their own bodies. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
I know that when you’re trying to connect with a child, concepts like bodily autonomy and consent seem like the farthest thing from relevant. You’re not trying to hurt or scare them. You just want to love them. I get it, I really do. How could love be harmful or dangerous??
The thing is, a child’s right to make choices about his or her body takes precedence in every interaction. Every time we force or physically manipulate their bodies to do something (anything), we are making a statement about bodily autonomy and consent. We are either telling them those things don’t matter or that they matter above all else.
In today’s climate of sexting, online sexual bullying, countless stories of rape and sexual assault, fears of sexual abuse (most often committed by people children know well and trust), and allegations of “rape culture,” the need for any parent to implement strategies to protect their children is of the highest priority. To teach children to respect the bodily autonomy of another person and understand what “consent” truly means, and give them a voice to protect their own autonomy, demand consent, or recognize danger, they must first and always experience that respect for their own bodies and voice from the people they trust.
Before they have a voice, I will be that voice so they know what it sounds like, how to listen to it, and how to proclaim it. I will confirm that their feelings and intuition are valid, before they even know what that means. One day, they will need to use their voice or respect someone else’s and we are laying that groundwork now.
This is the important work. More important than social niceties telling them that what others want or need takes priority. Yes, I must also raise kind, caring, and socially respectful people. Raising my children to understand consent is an integral part of that.
So please, beam your smile upon my children and show them that the world is full of love and they are welcomed into it. But know, that children deserve the same respect and space we adults give each other. Know that they are at the beginning of a long and deep journey to understand and protect their inner voice. And know that only when you help me protect that voice, together, as a village, can we raise a stronger, kinder, and more respectful generation.
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