Earlier today, I was chatting with several of my women college students about how often they’ve said “yes” (or just not vocalized “no”) to actions and situations that made them uncomfortable, because they feared upsetting someone else.
Just a few hours later, my daughter says to me, “The students who show up to perform at the ballroom dancing showcase for our school get 20 extra minutes of recess.” (We can unpack at a later time the audacious level of privilege that undergirds the offering of in-school rewards for activities outside of school - ones that require able-bodiedness, transportation, money, potential time away from work, etc.)
Me: “Well, what do you want to do?”
Daughter: “I said I was not going and my teacher asked me why not. I told her that I did not want to have to touch the boys. She said, ‘They’re JUST boys.’”
Me: (after several minutes of pausing to construct a sentence that was not jagged with anger) “They’re JUST boys? I don’t care if it is JUST an old lady, JUST a friend, JUST a teacher, or even JUST your own mother; that is your body and you don’t have to let any other person touch you under any circumstances.”
As I walked away (huffing, but proud of my girl), I thought back to all the people who have come up to my girls, stroked their curls, patted their faces, or asked for a hug, and then been offended when my girls scooted away. I thought back to the heart-wrenching stories of the young women in my class who didn’t dare to move even when they felt unsafe, and I turned around before fully exiting the living room.
Me: “You know what? I am going to reward YOU. What do you want to do tomorrow night? Whatever it is, we are doing it! Because I am so, so proud of you. Despite the social consequences and tangible punishment, you knew that your body was your own and that nobody had a right to tell you otherwise. You set your boundaries and that needs to be celebrated and encouraged.”
You see, this is a big deal. I came to find out that she was also told that her refusal to hold hands during practices would result in punishment for everyone. Wait…it gets worse! The punishment for not holding hands was having to be held in a much closer embrace. In all seriousness, my daughter was told to accept one level of uncomfortable touching to avoid an even more uncomfortable situation for her and all of her peers. It blows my mind that, in this time of saying #metoo, an educator would engage in this sort of coercion. It is not about dancing, because, Lord knows, dancing is awesome. It is not about the boys in her school. It is not about sitting something out. It is about not gaslighting our young girls when they say they are uncomfortable. It is about not issuing a societal invitation into personally-dictated space.
Boundary-setting starts early. I am terrified by the way most people interact with my children – expectant of hugs, entitled to a hair touch, ready to make kids feel “unkind” for not wanting to physically engage. Are we that out of touch with the message that sends to kids? Can we, as adults, not recognize that behavior is learned? If kids are not taught that their bodies belong to them in EVERY situation, how do we propose they make the distinction when it is most needed?
Here is my bright line: always. It is always, under every circumstance, ok for my children to decide that they don’t want to be touched by anyone.
I do not want to be talking to my girls 10 years from now and hearing the same stories of discomfort, intrusion, and fear that I heard from my students. Can we please start making it ok for kids to decline touch? It may not seem like a big deal when it is ballroom dancing, but let’s collectively decide that we don’t want our children to ever feel like they don’t have a say over who touches them, where, and why. That is so dangerous.
I have fairly intelligent children, but even I am not confident that my children would be able to successfully decipher the mixed messages of “boys and old ladies can touch you, even if you don’t like it” and “there are only very specific, scary situations in which you should feel empowered to say no.” Because, trust me, those situations we dread as parents, usually don’t begin scary. Perpetrators of dangerous touching are, most often, someone your child knows and may even trust. The touching begins “friendly” and “light.” We need to raise kids who can listen to their initial discomfort and respond without having to fight against all the voices in their heads (teachers, friends, parents, strangers) telling them that uncomfortable or unwanted touching is no big deal.
So, tomorrow, my child is going to be honored and celebrated. I want her to not only be empowered, but excited about her control over her own body. We will praise boundaries and work at every turn to counteract the messages that try to drown out her agency in this world. I will remind her that her God is protective of her, even when the world is not. As Romans 12:2 urges us: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”