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Thursday, July 7, 2016

How Often Did You Touch Your Son's Body / Invade His Sovereignty Without His Permission?

A reader emailed me this question, here is my answer, done in a hurry, but still possibly useful to those of you with young children!

I rarely had to move or touch my son's body without his permission. I would always request first that he be in control of his body. "That's my necklace, and I need you to give it back. Can you put it in my hand?" usually worked. If not, "That's mine, so if you can't put it in my hand, I am going to help you... Oh I see, you can do on your own!" My son always chose to do it on his own rather than be "helped." (And when I say always here I mean it--every single time he chose to give me back whatever object it was.) It should also be noted that he was proud of himself when he was able to do this, like it was hard to let it go but he DID IT and would say, "See! I did it!"

Another example would be, "I need you to get out of the street. I realize there are no cars right now, you know it, and I know it, but it's just stressing me out. Can you come back onto the sidewalk? ... Thank you." Again, he always complied, if not the first time, then the second or third time I asked. I would just keep asking in different ways, assuming that he wanted to meet my needs but didn't understand what I needed or why. So maybe if he didn't get out of the street the first time I would say, "Anders, the stress in my body is so intense. My heart is beating so fast, and I am just freaking out, like I want to cry. I really need you to help me by getting out of the street." (Note he was in the gutter, and not technically the street during these conversations, but he learned at about 11 months old that he needed to stay on the sidewalk--and he always did. I always made him in charge of moving his body onto the sidewalk, not me.)

For asking him not to play with something or even not allowing it, I would get between my son and say, the printer. And I would just repeat, "I'm not going to let you touch this... yes, you want to touch it and learn about it, but I won't let you... when you are 4, I will show you how it works, but not right now...." I would not let his hands touch the printer, but otherwise I would not touch his body, I would just keep moving his hands away and then let him be in control of his hands again. He would start crying and then I would just be with him while he experienced his disappointment. He would cry and I would say, "You feel disappointed. Can I hold you while you are sad?" At the younger ages offering something else was generally helpful as well, "I won't let you touch the printer, but you may type on my computer for a little bit if you're gentle."

There were times of course when I was upset or needed something to happen quickly and at those times I got-er-done, and if that meant moving Anders's body without checking first I did. This got harder as he got older--he would get very offended and then I would have to apologize. Sometimes he would bring it up at night or the next day. "I didn't like it when you did that!" he would tell me. And I would model how one owns up to her poor behavior and how to apologize and make amends. This didn't happen often, but it did happen, I don't want to pretend like it didn't!


  1. Love this post! I hope you will expand on this when you have the time; I will be referencing this often the next few years ;)

    1. Hi PL,

      Glad you found it helpful! You may enjoy the book Dear Parents: Caring for Infants with Respect. It has some great conversations like these along the same lines.


  2. Roslyn,
    How do you maintain these standards of personal space/general respect for Anders with your extended family? Was it difficult explaining/enforcing your unconventional (though entirely rational) values to your family? Should I just check out the Caring for Infants book for the answer? Love your Youtube channel, by the way; Anders is so confident, curious, and lively (if that makes sense??). Oh and dimples :)

  3. Hi A.M.M.E.,

    Glad you enjoy the YouTube channel! I would also use the words confident, curious, and lively to describe him. He rather blows me away all the time with his confidence.

    What I did with relatives--and I think Caring For Infants actually does mention something like this--is newscast:
    "She pinched your cheek. You didn't like that. Now you want me to hold you and keep you safe. If you want, you can say, 'This is my body. Please don't touch it unless I say so."
    "She called you a 'Good boy' but you have not heard that before. I think she means, 'Thank you.'"
    The main thing I was critiqued about (from my family and older friends) was safety things. So I would say, "Anders, at home you get to use the knife because I know how safe you are with it, but Grandma just doesn't feel safe about it. It's causing her too much stress in her body. Look at her face. I don't want her to feel that way. And this is her house too. So I think you should give me the knife." (Anders gave me the knife.)
    Another incident I remember is, "Anders, Grammy is feeling very upset because you just picked up that rock off the sidewalk. I think it's fine, but she thinks that you should put the rock back because it doesn't belong to you. Ah, you are putting the rock in your pocket. You think it's fine. I agree with you. Oh no, but look at Grammy's face. She is horrified. She is now walking away from us really fast. She doesn't want to be near us, that is how upset she is feeling. Wow, she feels very strongly about that rock." (Anders kept the rock for about an hour and then put it back."

    Many members of my family really love how I am raising Anders. Others are so curious they don't interfere as they are too busy watching. I am generally trying to make them feel free MORE comfortable to voice their discomforts rather than less. I AM okay with Anders using kitchen knives. But not if it is going to give someone a heart attack. I value being kind and considerate to others. Those who want to tell me their concerns find that I am happy to hear them and with great empathy ... but I make it clear that their concerns are about them. They really have nothing to do with me. If the person insists on me defending my ideas, well, I can spout research and reasons behind my choices for hours. But that is rarely the cause. In general, the person having the issue is the one that needs to talk. They need to be heard. I'm good. I don't have the issue. So I listen and listen and listen. And then I go on with my life.

    1. Roslyn,

      Thanks for such a detailed and thoughtful answer!
      There are so many aspects of my own childhood that were wonderful: I lived on a farm, I worked in a trade from a very early age, and was consequently a "miniature adult" in many ways. However, of course, there are many traditions/philosophies/compulsions that I don't wish continue or preserve in my new family, like fundamentalist religion, corporeal punishment, and anti-intellectualism. I've noticed that a lot of folks interpret a difference of opinion as a profound and deep criticism and, perhaps, they're correct. When you 'newscasted' with grandparents about cheek-pinching, did the grandmother get very upset? You've mentioned that you grew up with healthy foods, something you've passed down to Anders; do your parents interpret your parenting as a natural, progression in human achievement, building and improving on what they already did or do they find it threatening or uppity? I really like the idea of "standing on the shoulders of giants" and hope my own children are more accomplished, secure, and well-off than I am, and so on and so forth. Is this very American ideal dead? I know it shouldn't matter and I'd still stay my own course and limit time spent with grandparents if it became toxic. Is there enough 'proof in the pudding' that Anders is a happy and clever kid to unravel what would be hurt feelings and resentment?

      Sorry for the long message! There are so few real discussions about parenting.


    2. Hi A.M.M.E.,

      When I newscasted at people they did get upset sometimes. The grandmother who was upset about the rock was so angry with me she was rude to me--and Anders--for the rest of the day. Other family members were pretty shocked at her behavior, but she has been super crabby for the last two years, so we just tolerate her as best we can. I only see her about once a year. What I learned from that experience is that she can tolerate a lot more at her own home than out and about (lest other people see!) So now, I don't take her out to eat, we just meet at her house.

      It's actually not very different with my husband. Eating out with Anders (until he was about 4) was so stressful for him that he opted out. I don't tend to get embarrassed when kids do the things that kids do, and but my husband does. It felt wonderful for me to be able to free him from eating out with us. For years, Anders and I ate out, and we ordered something to-go for Tom. It was wonderful for Anders as well because he wanted his Papa to join us and thus became very interested at learning the kind of restaurant behavior that would make Papa comfortable enough to eat with us.

      My parents have seen Anders maybe twice in his life. I don't know if they have an opinion about how I am raising him. I have an aunt who spent quite a bit of time with us, and she did not approve of how Anders was being raised--but only until I gave her permission to be authentic with him. Once she had my permission to communicate with him the best way she knew how and to form her own relationship with him, they became quite good friends. People seem to develop a relationship with children THROUGH their parents. As soon as the child upsets them, they look helplessly for the Mom. I constantly encourage people to give Anders honest feedback about his behavior. Once they can be honest with him, once they feel like they are allowed to assert their needs, things seem to get a lot better.

      I think most of my family just thinks I am masochistic. It is so much more work to talk to Anders and negotiate and care about his needs than to not care about his needs. It annoys them when my desire to talk to Anders about something "wastes time." More people have commented on me having uppity (they say fancy) clothes than they have on my parenting.


    3. But like you said: Time will tell. Their families dispersed. My extended family and my husband's are all part of the current American family that pretends to like one another on holidays but otherwise--I am not clear on what real value they get from hanging out with one another. I think it would be different if we lived closer and spent more time together or if there were expected inheritances (inheritances tend to keep families more vested in their relationships). Most family members I see once a year or less.

      But this question is on my mind often. I am lonely for "family." But more the idea of family than my real family. I hope that the family I am creating doesn't disperse. I am not sure that a family--once dispersed--will ever truly recover. I do wonder if I would be happier if I invested more in relationships with family members, but it's so expensive just to see them! Better to invest in relationships close at hand. I'm sorry I don't have more of an answer for you!

      As you to your last question, I think about parenting the same way. Whenever I am beating myself for not living up to my own ideals, I remember that I am still doing way better than my parents did!

      But when it comes to the nitty gritty of children being more accomplished or more well off, it just depends on where you are. Current theories suggest that children always head toward the mean. If your income is less than the mean, your child will most likely do better than you did. But if your income is higher than the mean, your child will most likely do worse (financially speaking). Ditto with health. If you healthier than average, your child will be less so. If you are unhealthier than average, your child will be more so. This is something I am studying right now: How to prevent the fall toward the mean once your family is extraordinary. I enjoyed Bill Bonner's book Family Fortunes on this subject.