“Don’t talk to strangers.” That was THE Motto when I was a young child. Stranger danger was all the rage. As I got older and Nancy Reagan was hitting her stride in the ’80s, THE Motto became “Don’t Do Drugs.” Officer Nolan delivered that message to us sixth graders weekly, via the DARE program. Both were kind of perfectly timed with my development, so I’m kinda grateful for the cheesy slogans. These days, as my 7-year-old and I walk to school, I find myself explaining needles, with real-life visuals on the walk to school so…I’d say my parents had it a little easier…
“Do you want pancakes or waffles for breakfast?” Except for that. The morning my parents told me they were getting divorced had a lot of awkward moments, including the question my mom asked after the news-springing was all done. Talk about awkward and non-sequitur. There were my brother and I, 5- and 6-year-olds, sobbing on my dad’s chest (I thought I’d never see him again — I had yet to understand how this would all work), and my mom asked ‘pancakes or waffles’. Seriously? The other really weird part of that long morning, were the two books my parents read to us during said conversation. One was about divorce, and the other was about strangers and not letting strangers touch you. To this day, I am still so confused about why my parents read that book to us that one day. Random…I still remember some of the layout and the pictures….so it’s possible we, or someone, read it more than that one time.
Now that I’m a mum, the best advice I’ve gotten (I actually think it was from an Amazon review), is to read these books regularly with our kids — like once per month or so. Of course, these books are different from those books. For one thing, we (the collective we) no longer focus on strangers when it comes to icky touches. We understand that “uh-oh” touches don’t just come from strangers, they often come from people we know….much like any form of sexual harassment or abuse. YUK…I know…to me, it’s one of the worst things to think of as a parent. But equally as important, is that not all unwanted touches are necessarily icky or perverted — but they are unwanted — meaning they’re nonconsensual.
Team TME chatted about it behind the scenes after Scotti found this awesome Upworthy post showing how one teacher addresses consent with her students…we didn’t have much to say about what happens in school, but there was a lot of chatter about family.
I think the hardest part (for us right now) are friends and family demanding hugs from G, and then making her feel guilty or forcing them anyway if she doesn’t want to.”
Family, Friends & Unwanted Touches
I’m one of those people who used to think that just because someone is family, we’re obligated to hug them or sit on their laps, or allow them to hug us or kiss us. I thought the same with Goose when she was younger….especially with people like her great-grandfather. I’d keep coaxing her to hug him before ending a visit…In my head I’d be like, “HUG YOUR 91-YEAR-OLD GREAT GRANDFATHER, DAMMIT, EVEN THOUGH YOU’VE ONLY MET HIM 3 TIMES….YOU MAY NEVER SEE HIM AGAIN!” And Gramps, would rebuke me…”she doesn’t have to hug me if she doesn’t want to…she doesn’t even know me.” And still in my head, it was like “but you’re her family, and she has to get to know you, so she remembers you.” But even though that’s in my head, that’s the only place that idea exists — it’s not what’s being communicated to my daughter. What’s being communicated is something altogether different — and confusing. Just because they’re related to doesn’t mean they have a relationship.
It’s a struggle for us here, too. Kissing everybody when saying ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ is the norm in our culture. Family members practically demand a kiss, and will get mad and say kids are spoiled or disrespectful if they don’t do. I don’t care and never push my kids to do it. Not even grandparents if they don’t want to.”
Even when it does come to relationships, there’s a lot of confusing behavior that happens within families — and outside of them. I mean that cute little photo up there…of Goose and her best friend from Saigon…their relationship ate me up inside. I love him, and his family, and Goose loves him, and his family…but when they weren’t hugging and kissing, either she was consoling him (he was more sensitive) or he would be hitting or pushing her. It tore me up. I knew she was only a toddler, but I didn’t want my daughter thinking it was OK to have someone who loved you, or claimed to love you, who would also beat you up. But she was going to have to learn (or we were going to have to learn) how she could tell him “No!”…how she could tell him she did not want to be hit, and to say that, ‘I’m your friend, and we don’t hit our friends’ or ‘I don’t like when you push me’. It’s taken years….All those experiences from preschool that we would discuss, about how to speak up when someone hurts you or touches you in an unwanted way. And now, finally, Goose is executing these practices. Whew.
I just tell all of them, when they’re pushing their sibling to do something they don’t want to or are being silly and trying to “inspect” each other’s bodies (I intervene… lol)…I say ‘don’t ever make someone do what they don’t want to do…and do not ever do anything you do not want to do. We do not ever touch someone’s private areas. And you never allow anyone to touch yours.’ Of course, as they get older I won’t say that, necessarily…lol…I just want open communication. I hope that they just tell me and are open about their bodies!”
During this past year of #MeToo, there have been numerous stories of kids (or adults) being so over-tickled that they wet themselves. Tickling, as was pointed out by reader Allisen in our last post where Kim gave us those great ideas about teaching consent, is a great example of how difficult is to read nuanced, and sometimes conflicting messages, “The tickled person, who wants you to stop, is saying ‘Stop! Don’t!’ but at the same time, they’re laughing and smiling. For the tickler, it’s really hard to stop. Even though the tickled person is begging for you to stop, hearing them laugh is so rewarding you ignore their pleas.”
Yes, totally. And tickling, too. [My hubby] and I both have somewhat traumatic experiences with being over-tickled as kids by extended family. Sounds weird to type it out, but geez.”
I’ve spent more time than I’d like to tally on this topic. I’ve been taking extra steps these past few years to communicate to Goose about her boundaries and her ownership of her body. She doesn’t have any siblings; it’s just us at home, so I rely a lot on books and experts to explain; impromptu teachable moments don’t come up very often. There’s an old, out-of-print book called The Three Kinds of Touches, published by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape that calls the kinds of touches we want to draw attention to in this post “uh-oh touches.” As parents, we want to introduce kids to body safety at an early age, and the idea of “uh-oh” touches allows us to do that.
I also think it’s important as parents to respect their ‘nos’. Since my oldest was very little I taught him to tell me to stop if something I did bothered him. I would even make him practice several times until he said a firm NO and pushed away. Now he’s totally comfortable telling me to stop if I’m tickling, hugging or kissing him, and he doesn’t want to. He’ll say ‘Mom, stop, I don’t like that,’ and I stop right away. Same way if he does something I don’t feel OK with, he knows he must respect my ‘no’.”
So on that note, we’ve compiled a short list of books to get you started. There are so many books out there regarding body safety. Most address both boundaries and consent as it applies to young children. Also, most of our books are a little older — some of the newer ones have yet to stand the test of time. We actually looked at these books (some of us own them) and chose them from a wider selection. There are some good ones that go a little deeper, and can be a little more explicit, but as my midwife (the amazing Karen) used to say, ‘you have to decide what’s best for you and your family’. If you know a child psychologist or play therapist, they are wonderful resources for more books tailored to you and your child’s needs.
At home I use a lot of ‘you don’t have a right to…’ or ‘they don’t have a right to…’ [especially] whenever my oldest is doing something to my baby that he’s clearly not happy about.”
Four Excellent Books About Body Safety for Kids
No Means No! – Jayneen Sanders & Cherie Zamazing: This is a new book for us, but Goose got excited about it as soon as it was presented to her. LOVE the multiple examples of kids making it clear that ‘no means no’ for everything from wrestling and being tickled, to being forced to hold someone’s hand or bathed by someone else once old enough. Like all of the other books, this once contains notes and sample questions for parents.
Your Body Belongs to You – Cornelia Maude Spelman & Teri Weidner: We’ve had this one since Goose was around four. Surprisingly, she loves it. I don’t know if it’s because it’s familiar to her, or makes her feel empowered or because she likes to see the pictures of the kids playing. But if this is one of the few books I pack for a trip, she doesn’t complain. Goose is 7 now, and this is still a go-to. Clear, simple didactic message.
Do You Have a Secret? (Let’s Talk About It!) – Jennifer Moore-Mallinos & Marta Fabrega: This is one of my favorites, and one we’ve had since Goose was four as well. This message is super-important, especially if there are other family members or nearby loved ones who encourage secrecy or lying. I LOVE that it compares the good kinds of secrets (like a surprise party) with the ‘bad’ kinds of secrets, as well as providing other examples of when you’d confide in adults when someone else was doing something they shouldn’t be.
My Body is Private – Linda Walvoord Girard
Heads-up: a lot of these books contain a creepy uncle or a creepy uncle’s friend. I like to think of these creepy uncles not so much as your brother or your partner’s brother, but more like your Aunt Linda’s third husband Ted, the one who, at the family barbecue, has a beer in one hand and keeps grabbing himself or pinching behinds with the other….it helps if you’re a particularly imaginative person who needs emotional distance from any potential culprits.)
We also reached out to our amazing reader and Sex Education Teacher, Kim. She recommends this list compiled by Melissa Carnagey of Sex Positive Families. She also gave us some resources for older kids, for parents who are looking for a place to start with children over age 8 or 9. This is one of her favs: Asking About Sex & Growing Up: A Question-and-Answer Book for Kids. The Sex Ed Center posted these suggestions on their website, and this book for adolescent girls is another one at the top of Kim’s list (we trust her :-).
And you guys know me…I have to throw in a few spots from public radio, because that’s how I roll. If you’re a multitasker, here are some good pieces to listen to for parents:
How Mothers Talk To Sons About Consent
Writer and independent radio producer Sarah Lemanczyk has one goal, as a mother of boys: make sure they understand that “girls are sentient beings of equal value.” Sarah and Danielle Slaughter, the voice behind Mamademics as well as the creator of Raising an Advocate, invites calls from mothers of sons to talk about raising them to think beyond a “boys will be boys” mentality.
Raising Kids in an Era of Anger
Faith Salie talks about raising her young son to be empathetic and unafraid to access his emotions, or as she puts it, “sweet”, as well as how gendered messaging affects kids.
Thank you (again) to the amazing Kim Cavill, who is presenting at the first How To Raise A Kid: A HuffPost Parents Conference as I write this (you can watch it by clicking the link). She is so inspiring and resourceful! You can find more of her good advice at Tea and Intimacy. Also, a big thanks to Team TME for sharing their experiences and giving input on the books.
It’s not that I don’t want family to be silly and fun with my kids. I’m not weird about it. Just…if the kid says stop…f-ing stop.”
Do you have any resources you highly recommend for teaching boundaries and body safety to your kids? We’d love to hear about books for parents to read themselves, or that are appropriate for older kids and adolescents.