When I was younger, a boy grabbed my shirt and threw me into a window, holding me suspended by only his fists because I had refused to listen to his instructions to sit at the front of the bus for being ugly. I hit him repeatedly until he released his hold on me. I would be the one that was reprimanded by school administration. How dare a girl hit a boy? I was chastised by the Principal for being “unladylike.” (But It was apparently perfectly acceptable for him to use physical force on me for no reason whatsoever…..well no reason, other than him being a giant douche) Luckily, my Mom wasn’t having any of that and threatened God-knows-what until I was exonerated and the boy was reprimanded. I was technically no longer in trouble, but I was still asked by the Principal to “try not to hit someone again if in that situation.” I was to seek adult help. Ummm, OK. What was that really teaching both of us? Should I have allowed him to harm me more, while I gently asked the driver to pull the bus over and assist me? How about insisting that he should have never laid a hand on me and that it was within my rights to defend myself, rather than play the role of a weak, little victim?
I had always assumed that the idea of consent was a lesson that I would have to teach my children in their teenage years. I became aware of how the topic applies to younger children when I read an article about the importance of giving children a choice in their physical interactions from a young age, including not being forced to hug or kiss relatives and acquaintances. This idea very much challenged prior beliefs that it would be rude of a child to deny a hug or kiss to Grandma Jane or Uncle Joe when asked. The idea behind this push for autonomy was that when allowed the choice of having self-imposed boundaries, children learn at a young age that they are in control over their own selves and that they have a right to say “No.” Kids need to learn this from an early age and it goes beyond the idea of consent in relation to sexual type encounters. The idea of feeling comfortable with exerting control over your own personal likes or dislikes extends into a child learning the ability to confidently make their own decisions, apart from another’s influence or control.
One might argue that when affection is being doled out by family members and coming from a place of love, you are only teaching kindness and affection, but it is a bit more complex. Your child SHOULD be allowed to decline physical touch of any type. (What? GASP! And….NO, THEY ARE NOT BEING RUDE!) If children don’t learn autonomy of self from a young age and they are constantly bombarded with the mentality of “you do as I say and be compliant,” they are only being primed to ignore their own gut instincts and defer to others’ demands in every aspect of their lives.
Teaching children that they must comply to a people pleasing mentality only sets children up to be a meek personality in daily life. Insisting daily that a child does only as he or she is told without question also makes your child a perfect target for predatory behavior; it is not quite the giant leap of assumption that you may initially believe. You might again think ….. Ohhhhh, but its ONLY Grandpa Tom and Cousin Mary. True enough. However, ingraining it into a child to be a consistently compliant people pleaser from an early age is not going to assist them in navigating ANY relationships in the future, whether it be personal relationships, business, or being a generally “go-getter” type.
Society commonly subscribes to the theory that to be a girl means that you are expected to behave; be quiet, compliant and always acquiesce. Good girl = people pleaser. Good girl = do as you are told. In these equations there is no room for listening to an inner voice saying ….Nope, this doesn’t feel right. My parents always taught me to speak up for myself and to NOT take people’s crap, but society can easily override what you learn at home because those outside pressures can just be so relentless. You must rise above the pressures or begin to give in and oblige in order to please others and fit societal expectations of being a good girl. I do not want my kids to waiver in their self-confidence, ideologies or decision making, so I have taught them to think and do for themselves. I don’t always tell them what to do. Fostering self-advocacy is not the easiest route for a parent to take. Often, I wish they WOULD JUST LISTEN without spewing a litany of extremely valid points against what I am advising them to do.
Last year my 8-year-old daughter had two friends that she regularly played with. Both friends were male. The kids would often tease one another and play chasing games which would sometimes end with Boy #1 lightly making a pinching motion at my daughter’s cheek or on her arm, but never actually pinching or hurting her. One day while playing, the situation had escalated to a point where my daughter hurt Boy #2. I do not say allegedly. She did it. I was initially furious and wanted to know why she had put her hands on someone with the intent to harm. As a parent, your mind immediately goes to the worst-case scenario and I suddenly had visions of her in an orange jumpsuit someday, asking me to smuggle her a sharp implement hidden inside my homemade banana bread. I did not want to be raising a future bully or prison inmate and I demanded that she explain why she had done such a terrible thing. Why had she hurt another child? To say that I was beside myself is an understatement.
I never want my children to NOT defend themselves if they think they are threatened in any way. This does not mean that I want them to immediately resort to physical violence either. I have often told my children to fight back if they are ever harmed. I never would have thought that my daughter would take this statement so literally. When I pressed my daughter on the events that had unfolded while playing, she simply answered me with “but you told me to always defend myself if someone is hurting me.” She went on to explain that she was COMFORTABLE with the teasing and light touching of Boy #1. She said, “When he put his hand on me, it was in a nice way and he never hurt me. I was comfortable, so I didn’t mind.” She would tell me that Boy #2 “looked angry and pinched me hard. I asked him to stop three times and told him he was hurting me. He actually seemed angrier each time. It made me UNCOMFORTABLE and feel….icky.” She had asked Boy #2 to stop touching her THREE TIMES and he did not. After the third time, she pinched him back in the exact way he had done to her, saying “See….it hurts…..STOP!” I do not condone my child hurting anyone. Still……I knew that my handling of this situation would have to be done in a very delicate manner because there would be ripple effects for years. This was beyond a silly playtime incident.
Isn’t it the goal when raising children to allow them to grow into independent and capable adults with their own strong personal beliefs and opinions? That is certainly my goal. I do not want them still living at home and jobless when they are 35, simply because they never learned how to trust standing on their own two feet. I will not do everything for them. The teaching of self-autonomy must start when they are young. It starts with simple things like making SOME of their own decisions from early on. Key word here; SOME. Yes…children need direction and rules. I am certainly not implying that we as parents allow a free-for-all and complete chaos, “Lord of the Flies” style. Sometimes I am even completely guilty of pulling out the old “because I said so” comment, to negate my children’s attempts to thwart my better judgment. Kids need rules. Family life for us is less of a Dictatorship though and more of a Democracy.
My Mom was the first redhead in my life that nobody could mess with. My headstrong redheaded daughter and two additional, equally spirited children must be her karmic gift to me for being a headstrong handful while growing up. When I had discovered that my first child would be a girl, my Dad laughed and jokingly said, “Payback’s a bitch!” He was joking. Sort of. My kids are exactly as fierce as I was as a child, but I wouldn’t change it. Expecting children to be complacent on a daily basis….WITH ANYTHING….may be easier on us as parents in the short term, but it really does not serve them well in the future to always need approval from other people before trusting their instincts. This is even more important with my daughters because young women are not always encouraged to be strong and self-sufficient. I don’t want my girls to be complacent and meek women who look for everyone else’s stamp of approval prior to making a decision, or when just choosing to be themselves.
I really DO often wish that my children were less headstrong. They seriously may kill me before I reach 50, but I honestly cheer them on (quietly) ….. AFTER I have had a breakdown and some wine. No person will ever mess with my kids. They will never allow it. Their independence from only subscribing to my way of thinking will allow them to form their own personalities and that will only serve them well in their futures. My kids DO often come to us for advice and they rely heavily on our parental input, but they are ultimately their own stubborn selves and they make their own decisions. It can be tough to watch sometimes. It would be easier if they just always did as we say…..and I could enforce it… but that will not help them become productive and confident individuals as they become older.
My kids will hopefully be confident, independent, and successful as they grow. Until that day of independence and adulthood comes, I find myself buying more hair dye to hide all the damned gray hairs they are giving me with each passing day. I also always keep some red wine and Tito’s handy, commiserate with fellow Mamas, and hope for the best.
Jenn Miele Leslie lives in Woodbridge, CT with her husband, three kids ages 8, 9 and 14 and two bulldogs who likes to fart and snore. Originally from Long Island, N.Y. (yes, that IS how you say it – if you’re from there you just understand) she misses being able to find a decent bagel or breakfast sandwich. Once an Art Therapist specializing in working with adults with various developmental disabilities, Jenn now spends her time shuttling her minions to: school; playdates; dance classes and competitions; occupational therapy; coding classes; and what feels like a million additional places, on a daily basis. In her occasional down time, Jenn enjoys photography, painting and an iTunes playlist that boasts way too many 90’s alternative songs.