Jessica Bruner on why she is adamant about protecting her children’s right to bodily autonomy and consent.
“No! Don’t pick me up! Don’t pick me up!”
My daughter’s panicked voice carried to me where I sat on the patio nursing my infant son.
It was a Tuesday evening in June and we’d had a small gathering to celebrate Kaylin’s third birthday. Nothing big, really. Both sets of grandparents came over, and after dinner we had some cake and did presents. The big present was a new playhouse in the back yard, so we spent most of the evening out there.
It was after 8:30 now — so near the solstice that the sun was still up, but late enough that it was time for everyone to leave. My dad had asked for a hug and a kiss goodbye and Kaylin said no. She was having fun and not ready for anyone to leave yet. Demonstrating classic 3-year-old logic, she figured if she didn’t say goodbye, maybe no one would go.
I was listening to this exchange from my seat on the patio where I was attending to my 5 month-old. We’ve never had a big problem with people forcing hugs or kisses on Kaylin over her protests, so I didn’t worry too much when she said no.
The panicked screaming that came next caught my attention.
When I looked over, my dad had her flailing body in his arms.
“If she doesn’t want to be picked up, don’t pick her up,” I chided.
“Well, he’s trying to put her down, but she keeps collapsing,” my mom said. “You don’t want him to drop her, do you?”
“No, but he shouldn’t have picked her up in the first place. She clearly said no and was screaming, ‘Don’t pick me up, don’t pick me up.’”
On that sour note, what had been a pleasant evening was over. Once she got her feet under her, Kaylin ran inside crying, seeking comfort from her dad. My dad went straight through the house to the car without saying a word to anyone while I said goodbye to my mom. When her other grandparents tried to say goodbye, Kaylin refused to acknowledge them. Having witnessed the whole exchange minutes earlier, they wisely didn’t push it and just said goodbye to my husband and I before leaving.
Personally, I’ve never understood the desire to force affection on an unwilling participant. I’d rather give a hug to someone who wants a hug and hugs me back. If I wanted to hug a stiff, unyielding participant, I’d go hug a tree. At least then I’d still get the benefit of being in contact with nature, rather than the open hostility that emanates from the unwilling recipient of a hug.
Having been on the receiving end of such gestures, I have decided to never force my children to give hugs or kisses when they don’t want to. What is usually intended as affection becomes an act of aggression when forced on someone who doesn’t want it. That means I try to prevent anyone from hugging my daughter over her protests, and I accept it when she says no to my overtures of affection. I know that my dad wasn’t trying to be hostile, and saw it as just wanting a hug. My daughter perceived it as an attack.
The biggest problem is that her no wasn’t taken seriously, as is so often the case with children. It’s a generational and cultural divide that separates my point of view from that of my dad. The dominant culture has viewed children as property and their views as unimportant since time immemorial. But it’s high time that changed.
Children are people. They deserve to be treated with the same amount of dignity and respect as any other person. Would you force a hug on anyone else you know? Demand a kiss of a friend’s friend, a coworker, or other acquaintance?
No, you wouldn’t. That would be rude or weird or creepy or all of the above. People would wonder what’s wrong with you. But if you demand the same thing from a child, it’s perfectly okay.
I want my children to feel comfortable saying no. To feel comfortable defending herself and her right to feel safe in her own skin. In a world where one in five girls and one in 20 boys are victims of child sexual abuse, I want my children to know that I will not allow their physical boundaries to be violated unchallenged. I want them to know that they can tell me when someone touched them without their consent.
And that’s at the heart of it. Consent and bodily autonomy. The only times I violate my children’s consent is for their health or safety. I change my daughter’s diaper despite her protests on occasion, though I usually work to get her on board with the idea before giving up and wrestling her. I have found it necessary to force her into the car seat over her screaming and arching. I hate doing it and those times are thankfully rare.
For the record, I do not suspect any of my male relatives of being closet child molesters. I do not think that a forced hug is on par with sexual abuse. The fact is, though, that I cannot protect my children from all the evils of the world. All I can do is arm them with tools to combat it and the knowledge that I am on their side. One of those tools is being confident that they can say no, and that the people they love and who love them will respect that. Ignoring a boundary ought to be a red flag.
The flip side of this is that I also want my children to learn to respect the boundaries of others in the same way that they should expect their boundaries to be respected. The best way to learn that is for it to be modeled in daily life. If my daughter says no, I don’t hug her, and apologize if I already have. If I say no, we talk about how she doesn’t like it sometimes when I hug her without asking and that I feel the same way too.
We all have the right to lay down boundaries. We all have the right to personal space. Consent is the invitation to cross a boundary and occupy the same space. It needs to be given freely and happily.