Tuesday, December 6, 2011

No means No: Children’s voices/Adult Boundaries

Have you ever tickled a child and they laughed but said stop?  Did you stop?
I have been aware for some time, as a child abuse treatment therapist, that children’s declarations of self hood are often ignored by adults. We tell kids for instance, “Give Aunt Mary a kiss” even as the child may be pulling away; or “That’s not nice to say no to a hug, you’ll hurt (so and so’s) feelings”. 

We scoop them up from behind without notice, in the name of play, and we routinely cross boundaries with children we would likely not do with an adult.  Today I discovered my babysitter tickling my son. He was laughing yet saying, “Stop.”   I have intervened in this before so today I took a moment and stood just outside the door and listened. She continued to tickle. He continued to giggle but say “stop” and his “stops” were getting more adamant and I could hear the mounting frustration build up. And since I know my son, I could also tell he was trying hard to denounce his feelings and to accept this situation.  Anyway, she did not stop; in fact she began a debate by asking him “why are you laughing if you don’t like it?”  He didn’t know how to answer. He is four.

My son tried to reason with her. He asked if she liked to be tickled. She admitted she did not.  So my son asked wisely, “Then why are you tickling me when I say no?” Again, not acknowledging his quite mature reasoning she said, “Because you were laughing, so I know you liked it”.  Now I could hear the tears in his voice. He was trying to reason with an adult about something that was hard to explain and his feelings and boundaries were not being given any worth. (By this time of course I was at the door to the room, hoping my presence would offer him courage and communicate my concern to the sitter.) Next, my child said,” If you don’t like it and I say stop then you shouldn’t do it!” Then with tears in his eyes, he hit her. 
So guess what?  She began to admonish him for hitting saying hitting isn’t nice and he should apologize. The hypocrisy jumped at me hard and I struggled to remain calm.  Now, I do not teach my child to hit. I teach the use of words. He had done that. It hadn’t worked. So at this point I stepped in and told her that I teach my child that his body is his own and that if he says no to a touch or tickle, that is his right and his words should be accepted. 

So the rest of the day my child was out of sorts and was displaying some aggression that he usually doesn’t. I realized that he had several experiences with adults in his life this week where his body integrity had not been respected. Again, the forced hugs and such by well meaning but clearly unaware adults.
Why do we think that children should be forced to allow things we ourselves do not like, such as unwanted hugs, kisses or tickles? This is very reminiscent of “she didn’t fight so I thought she liked it”, even though the victim in this description may have been grimacing or crying, she didn’t fight so it was OK?

It’s not OK.

Again, I come from a child sexual abuse prevention background and I have been well educated in how to teach children and families ways to increase child safety and have children grow up to be assertive, not aggressive and respect boundaries within themselves and others. The reason children do not know how to say no to child abusers, or grow up to be people without  clear and self defined assertiveness skills is largely because we parents, caregivers and the greater culture often send messages to children every day that slowly melt away their assertive and dignified voice in many areas.
My child has clear boundaries in our home. Rules are clear and there are consequences when not followed. He is not allowed to disrespect others. He is not allowed to grab another kid by the arm and pull him along, or to try to force anyone to do something that is uncomfortable for them. I expect that those around him allow the same respect. But sadly, this is often not the case. 

So often kids learn that they are not allowed to say no, they are not allowed to own their own body. When we are tickled, we laugh. It is an automatic bodily response. It does not signify we like it. If we say no while laughing we still mean no. A child comes into fierce awareness of their relative vulnerability at the hands of an adult through tickling. They cannot break free and saying stop often doesn’t work. Their body betrays them by laughing. Their words seem to mean nothing to the all powerful adult. Often the same adult who instructed, “use your words”.
And when they finally get so frustrated by this vulnerability, they hit or bite, or whatever. Then, they get in trouble. Can you imagine how frustrating and demoralizing this is? Not every child has the same areas where he or she is sensitive or experiences powerlessness. But as caregivers, teachers, and parents we should be attentive to signs of distress, and by all means model that No means No and Stop should be respected.

And by the way, if disrespecting a child’s body boundaries through corporal punishment at one end of the spectrum, or even frequent less overt occurrences of disrespect become customary for a child, they will over time, learn to ignore their own instincts and relinquish their own power and control. Or they will likely become bullies.

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