“Have I ever done anything abusive to you?” I asked my daughter. She had just affirmed that I had never smacked her, so I didn’t think she would say yes – but I needed to check just in case maternal amnesia was causing mummy smugness.
After a bit of a pause, my self-image as gentle mummy was shattered. “Yes, you have,” she said with absolute conviction. “When I was little, if we went out and I had a dirty face, you would spit on your hanky and wipe it.”
That’s hardly a childhood trauma is it? Heck, I can remember my nana, all dressed up in her hat and gloves, dabbing at my own face with a bit of spit on her lacy hanky. Mind you, I can also remember squirming at the time – and that got me thinking about how easy it is to simply do things to small children and babies, without even considering how intrusive or disrespectful it might feel to them.
Respecting babies and little children is about empathy, seeing yourself in your child’s place. It’s also about the subtle messages we convey to littlies about their right to own their bodies and to refuse unwanted touching. Just for a moment, consider how it must it feel to have your legs pulled up in the air and your pants peeled off without so much as a ‘please’ or ‘thankyou’? Or imagine being taken to visit a house full of people you’ve never met before, and being expected to smile as they hover over you with their beer breath and kisses or pass you around from one stranger to another like a tiny parcel. And what about relatives – or even strangers – who think they have a right to ‘coochie coo’ those chubby cheeks, or to squeeze a juicy little knee.
Of course, we have to keep babies clean and fed, and experiences such as meeting new people are inevitable unless we live in complete isolation. But we can be mindful how we do things to babies. A baby can’t be expected to take to a group of strangers in a flash, so introductions will give him time to adapt to new surroundings if you are visiting. And rather than just sneaking up on your baby and wiping his face or changing his bum, tell him what you are about to do. If you want to do something that isn’t absolutely necessary (of course changing a nappy isn’t ‘optional’), such as giving him a massage, ask his consent first.
You might be thinking, what’s the point of asking consent from a baby who can’t understand me? But even tiny babies give very definite cues that they want to play, or be picked up, or that they would prefer to be left alone. By responding to their cues appropriately, we are teaching babies to say “yes” and “no” to things that are pleasurable or not, and that they do have choices.
We also need to ditch our own concerns about what others may think about us, and how we have taught our children to be polite (and not wipe off those yukky kisses or tell the kisser to go away!). Instead, we need to prioritise our child’s feelings, because as we unwittingly give children mixed messages about compliance, we may also be setting them up for potentially abusive situations.
We can treat babies and small children with respect by allowing them to refuse any unwanted touching – from anyone, even Grandma – if they don’t feel like hugs and kisses. Yes, I know babies and children are ‘delicious’ and Grandma (and anyone else) may have their feelings hurt by being refused, but perhaps instead of insisting kids to kiss Granny, we can ask “would you like a cuddle?” Or “do you have a goodbye hug for Grandad?” And we can respect their wishes.
When they are treated with respect, children will learn that they have rights, that their body is theirs and they can be in charge. Most importantly, we give them a clear message that they are safe to come and tell us if they feel that their privacy has been breached in any way. And they know we will listen, because we always have.
Pinky McKay is offering Baby Sleep and Toddler Tactics Seminars in Townsville, Cairns (Toddler Tactics only) and Adelaide in November. Check out her site for more information and to register.