I was raised in a very authoritarian household. Not in a “spare the rod, spoil the child” kind of way, but in a “be polite, smile, and respect your elders” kind of way. This has served me well, especially in customer service. That being said, my well-mannered upbringing did not prepare me to respond appropriately in situations that have made me uncomfortable. Rather than creating an awkward encounter or confrontation, I smile nervously and nod along until the situation resolves itself. Fortunately, I have never needed to defend myself in a life-and-death situation.
Now that I’m a Mama Bear, it has occurred to me how problematic this personality trait is. It is my duty to protect these little bear cubs of mine. I cannot do that if I refuse to acknowledge situations that are just not okay. There have been several instances when I’ve been in the grocery store with both of my children and a stranger has approached us. Usually, the person wants to compliment me on my parenting or to let me know just how gosh-darn adorable my children are. Most of the time these encounters are pleasant, if not uneventful. However, there have been times in which a stranger has felt the need to tousle my child’s hair, grab them by the arm, or place their hands upon them to pray. I see the intention behind this behavior and I understand that it is good and not predatory. However, I find it concerning that a person who is unfamiliar to myself and my children feel that it is okay to touch my child without their (or my) consent. There has also been a common denominator in these situations- the person has always been an older, white male. I am not trying to demonize men, but I do think it is worth noting.
In the times that this has happened to us I have, as is my personality, nodded along and waited for the situation to pass while my toddler looked on confused. It was not a look of alarm, as much as trying to reconcile why this strange person was touching him. As a Mama Bear, every ounce within me wanted to scream, “Hey stranger, get your hands off my kid!” Instead, I said nothing and kicked myself for it later.
I imagine that there have to be some other moms out there like me. Moms who are polite, kind, and non-confrontational. This is all well and good, but it does nothing to preserve the safety of our children. Because I know myself and because I’ve been angry at myself in the past for not speaking up on behalf of my child, I have thought about what to do if this happens again.
I have literally sat in my car and practiced reciting the line, “Thank you, sir. But in our family, we have a rule that people we don’t know need to ask before they touch us.”
Just playing this scenario out in my mind makes me cringe. I loathe uncomfortable social situations and would rather not speak up at all. But my children need to learn about consent. As future older, white males, they need to know that it is never okay to touch someone you don’t know without asking for their permission. By my speaking up and demonstrating that you can calmly request that someone not invade your physical space, they know that no one should be able to do that to them, nor they to anyone else.