This post is inspired by a really interesting post/comment thread at The Pursuit of Harpyness about children in public spaces (once again!) and how our behavior toward them and their parents relates to social norms and expectations.
First, some background to the point/observation I want to make.
One of the commenters wrote, about what was so frustrating about children in public spaces for them,
To give a concrete example, one norm that I find children violate way more than adults has to do with personal space. I really, really don’t like being touched by strangers. Brushing past someone and so on is fine but someone coming up to me and deliberately touching me without my permission is completely not okay with me and generally speaking that syncs with cultural norms so I don’t have to enforce it too much — with *adults*. Children touch people all the time and if I’m in a public space and someone else’s kid starts climbing on me or messing with my things, that’s not okay and it’s ultimately the fault of the parent or caretaker. I don’t feel I should have to explain to a child why they shouldn’t be pulling on my hair. That’s not my job. They need to stop and if their parent won’t stop them, I will, and that’s that.
To which I responded
I do think it’s important to think about how to explain to children that it’s important to ask before touching. Americans are generally schooled to be touch-averse (and above and beyond cultural norms there are people who are personally touch-averse for a variety of reasons) and for children living in American society, it’s important for them to learn that this is a social norm.
Followed by spark, who observed that
I understand that society has evolved so that it’s inappropriate to tell a stranger’s child to stop pulling your hair (baraqiel’s example), but it shouldn’t be. It takes a village etc.
To which I responded
I completely agree with you that it should be acceptable for any person to tell another person (in this case a child) “please stop touching me, it’s making me uncomfortable.” We teach children that they have a right to decline touch that makes them feel uncomfortable and I think it’s perfectly okay for an adult to speak up for themselves in exactly the same way. I see that as showing the child that they (the child) also has permission to determine who touches them and how.
This exchange got me thinking about parents and children — and about women and children especially. About how women are socialized in so many ways to feel that they don’t have the right to bodily autonomy in interpersonal relationships. Especially interpersonal relationships that involve sexual intimacy (rape culture anyone?) and in relationships that involve children. Their own children or anyone else’s. Women — and I realize I’m generalizing here, but the point I’m making is about cultural norms — often feel like the don’t have a right to say no: no to getting pregnant, no to staying pregnant, no to giving birth, no to parenting, no to care-taking. Over and over and over again in our society, women especially are told that these roles are their biological and social destiny.
Consider the example that the commenter, baraqiel, gives: a child coming up to you and somehow invading what you feel is your personal space. And the fact that, somehow, baraqiel feels unable (or at least likely to be socially sanctioned) to tell the child “hey, please don’t touch me.”
We, as a society, try hard (at least in theory!) to teach children that it’s important for them to reject “bad touch,” that they have a right to bodily autonomy and that they can assert that right in public spaces. Negotiating touch is an important skill for all of us to learn, since it’s not an issue that goes away when you become an adult. Young people are far from the only offenders when it comes to different levels of desire for and toleration of interpersonal touch. A society-wide conversation should and could be happening around what it means to physically interact with others, to give and receive informed consent for touch in a variety of everyday situations.
Yet despite this robust discourse (within feminist circles at least) about the importance of consent when it comes to touch, it seems that adults feel powerless to say “no” to children in public spaces. Or defensive and resentful when they are in a position of having to say no. Even when the thing to which they are saying “no” is something which, if done by another adult, they would quite readily say “no” to (i.e. another adult touching their hair uninvited, for example). So the question is: why? Why does it feel so impossible to make a request that a child stop doing something that is freaking you out, invading your space, making you feel uncomfortable in your skin? Why does it seem like the only possible responses are complete inaction or extreme action (i.e. removal of the child from the area completely)?
The more I think about this, the more I see it as an unfortunate, radical extension of the privitization/segregation of children/childhood. The idea that the only “appropriate” adults to interact with a young person in any direct, meaningful way, is the parent or a designated parent-substitute (i.e. teacher, childcare provider). In a pinch. Although even they are often suspect. Children are, in the “normal” course of things, supposed to reside in private, segregated spaces such as homes and schools — not out in the world of every day society. Children, thus, are treated as an Other who because of their segregation need interpretation and mediation — instead of just being in the world, they must be monitored, translated for, guarded, controlled. They have been removed from the human community and set apart — and their introduction into human society is an event, rather than the normal course of business.
As a child not in school during school hours (I did not attend any institution of education until college) I experienced first-hand how upsetting it was to adults that children might move about the world more freely, yet responsibly. You got noticed. And because you were noticed, you were under heightened scrutiny; an oddity.
And because you’re anomalous, you’re treated as an unknown, as Other. Something to be both highly protected/revered and highly suspected/contained. Never just: yourself.
And thus, adults, interacting with these Others somehow feel disempowered: unable to say “no” and also unwilling to say “yes.” (Because who wants to say “yes” when you feel like you’re being coerced, when “yes” is the only option?)
It seems to me like we need a new approach to understanding children in society, a new approach to interacting with these growing, learning beings that fully acknowledges not only their personhood but also our own: that does not require that we interact with them only as two-dimensional caregivers (selflessly giving of ourselves with no ability to set personal boundaries) or keep our distance.
Which really just brings me back to the radical idea that, rather than treating children as a separate species, we treat them as indiividuals who — like many adults! — have specific emotional, physical, or mental needs, but who belong to the human community and can be asked to respect the boundaries of others.
Remember: When you tell a child “that doesn’t feel good to me, please stop” you’re showing them that part of being human is having the ability to set boundaries, to protect yourself. And by expecting them to respect that request teaches them that this is a request you can make that other people have the ability to listen to and respond to that request without the world falling apart. To know that this is an exchange you can have with strangers on the bus, or a grown up at the grocery store (someone who can be polite, yet firm about their needs) is going to help grown them into persons who will, in turn, be able to respect such requests in the future, and make similar requests for themselves.
Giving them the knowledge that they have that agency — the agency to respond to the needs of others with care, and to have their needs met with equal respect — is a powerful feminist act.