It likely took each of us many years to learn to set and hold boundaries for our bodies and ourselves and we are determined to pass on that skill to our children, but have we learned to say “No” to everyone except our kids?
We teach our children the correct names: vulva and penis. We teach our toddlers that they are the ones to decide if, when and where they can be touched. We let them know that it isn’t okay to hurt friends or to let friends hurt them. If we are into the cutting-edge of parenting philosophies, we also attempt the difficult task of not touching our children if they protest and striving for consensual diaper changes instead of holding them down.
We are telling them that they can say “No.” We respect their boundaries. We try to model respect and consensual touch in our partnerships so that our children witness that. We imagine we would leave any relationship where our children could witness us being mistreated and disrespected.
I fear that the same major element missing from most gentle discipline challenges (modeling) is also missing here. Why aren’t we showing our children that we don’t let anyone (even them!) hurt us or touch us without asking? Let’s talk about hair pulling, hitting, biting, climbing-all-over-you, pulling on your clothes, nursing a toddler every 20 minutes when we really don’t feel like it and attempting sleep with a foot in your ear. Let’s talk about how to set boundaries for our own bodies in the presence of our babies, tots and kids. Let’s talk about whatever child behavior truly gets your goat, makes your skin crawl, makes you angry and on-edge and simultaneously swallow your feelings. How do you feel about saying “No” firmly to your child when they touch you in a way you don’t want to be touched?
I’d like to share a message from a parent coaching client a while back on a topic I am constantly thinking about and observing (shared with permission!):
“I’m not ready to wean but my 2-year-old is smothering me at night and very possessive of my breasts during the day, nursing every hour and grabbing them in between. She is not gentle and draining me, clamping down hard and it hurts. I don’t want to be done breastfeeding but I find myself getting angry with her and being cranky all day. I tried night weaning for two nights and she was very upset. I don’t know what to do and I guess I don’t know how to say No. “
My Response: I believe strongly in modeling for our children that we have boundaries about our own bodies and touch so that they know they can say “No” to others. It might be a very hard challenging, tear-filled few days of setting boundaries with a sweet stubborn kid but then it is over and they get it but there are many good lessons in it.
By the time mom is in pain and touched out, there are resentments building that don’t help us parent gently at other times. I fully believe that babies and toddlers should nurse on demand if it makes everyone happy. But on-demand works best if everyone enjoys the activity.
Nursing on demand is what sets our newborns and our breasts up for success. But my own nursing relationship with my daughter was all on my terms after 9 months of nursing on demand. I decided when we would nurse and I offered. If she asked, I checked in with myself and decided whether or it was going to happen then or later. I mainly wanted to make sure that she saw that I made the decisions about my body. She nursed for a total of 3 years. It turns out that connecting with my body and me on my own terms was just fine with her.
Tell your daughters and sons how the current challenges makes you feel, your concerns, show them your emotions and tell her. Tell reasons if you feel like it or simply say you don’t feel like it now. Even if you don’t think they can understand your words, they understand more than we think and can read our faces and develop empathy from observing our experience. Then prepare them for a change you are making to the relationship dynamic and be a fully present compassionate witness to her frustration with that change while you hold firm.
When and where do we draw then line between our body and our child’s body? For those of us with biological babies, they used to be literally part of our body and us part of theirs. We were as one. That baby literally needed access to our body constantly and in the “4th trimester” after birth. They needed us for comfort, heat, soothing, and food. Each parent must decide at what point they will begin gradually and gently teaching what boundaries are between the two bodies.
My daughter always pulled or twirled my hair when she was nursing. It was a comfort for her but when she was a bit older and the behavior was constant, I didn’t like it. That is when I first started thinking about consent and parenthood in this way. I had to work on gradually explaining that it hurt. I stopped the nursing session and started over. I re-directed her to twirl her own hair. My daughter also felt the need to pull on my clothes when she wanted something or was bored. Once I realized that it really was my number one pet peeve and it drove me through the roof, I worked on ways to say “Stop.” I taught myself to use I statements with my toddler. “Stop. I cannot let you pull my skirt. I do not like that. It does not feel good to me.” I asked her to hold my hand instead. I told her she could pull on her own shirt.
I watched a mom at the farmers market the other day tune out her 5-year-old son’s running up and repeatedly thrash-bumping her as she tried to order some vegetarian tamales. It was clear that he was just a high-energy kid and she was simply used to this thrashing and had chosen to permanently ignore the behavior. As he bumped into her for the 10th time, each time sending her further into the tamale tent, she had stopped talking to the vendor, eyes glossed over in a pause but not saying a word to her son. She was not even enraged and preparing to talk to him or preparing what she would say to her child. She was off in another place entirely.
I was so sad of her. She looked to me in that moment like every woman friend I have ever heard say they left their body while they suffered sexual abuse, physical abuse, birth trauma or unwanted touch. We can gently teach our children that grabbing and lunging at us, biting, demanding, and pinching -while these may be age-appropriate behavior worthy of understanding, are not ok if we don’t like it. Our healing from oppression and the occupation of our woman bodies comes in layers like an onion. Our conscious modeling as mothers and learning to say “No” is one of those last morsels in the middle after all of the work we’ve done so far in owning our bodies.
Everyone has their own unique feelings about space and what is okay for their unique body. Your partner may say that same child behavior that drives you crazy is just fine with them. Your child’s best friend or aunt may love to rough-house in a way you won’t. We can teach our children that each individual deserves to be asked for consent on how they want to be touched and when, how they want to be played with. We all deserve to be regularly checked in with: “Is now a good time?” and “Does that feel ok?” Or just the simple ASL signs for “more milk” and “please”.
Many of us may have thought that teaching consent starts with our toddler asking his friend if he can go in for a hug, but teaching consent really starts at home. It starts with the mama-body: the boobies, the skin, the hair, the clothing, and the ears. (“I can’t stay here next to you. I am walking away. Your screaming hurts my ears.”) Learning these to implement our boundaries is a long process. We will be imperfect in teaching and modeling these skills, imperfectly and slowly setting the stage for a more respectful and just world for our children.
P.S. If you want to prepare for setting boundaries, get the online program or work with me to Become Boundaries Bettie (expecting up to 3yrs): Gentle Discipline Online DIY Program or Become A Boundaries Bettie If you need support to change some difficult habits or troubleshoot challenges, join me in a support package via phone, email, text support: CAN WE FIX IT? YES WE CAN!
For tired parents with older babies and tots who are nursing many times a night or have nighttime behaviors parents want to change (like nipple twiddling or needing to sleep on your face), I meld sleep plan creation with gentle boundary-setting parenting skills in my Get Your Brain Back private consulting package.
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