I Was So Focused on Teaching Manners, I Forgot about Body Boundaries

I’m a perfectionist parent and simply put, that’s not working out. Parenting, I’m slowly beginning to realize, is learning as you go along. It’s trying out one thing, and then throwing it out the window. The older I get, the more I see how little I really know for certain. Maybe it’s stubbornness, but sometimes you have to be hit right in the gut to see what you failed to see before.

Like so many of us, I have made parenting mistakes. Here’s one that took some time to acknowledge:

In the name of manners, I have expected – no, commanded – my daughter to behave in a socially appropriate way. And for that, I am regretful. Let me back up… Our daughter is, in her own words, “not a hugger”. She is slow to warm. She observes for a long time, cautiously, before deciding whether or not she approves of someone. It’s just who she is. With the exception of her mother and father, she does not shower others with affection. She will offer up a “high-five”, but that’s about it.

We all have those family members; maybe an aunt, uncle, or grandparent, who unfairly measures a young child’s love by the amount of affection they receive from her. I’ve done it too.

“Aren’t you going to give me a hug hello?”
“Come here and give Aunt Bessie a big juicy kiss!”
“Give grandpa a kiss if you want the present I brought to you!”
“Don’t you love me? I’m your Uncle Jimmy! I’ve known your mother since birth!”

And, in an attempt to make these family members feel validated and loved, I have often joined in the chorus.

“Give grandpa a hug, please. Don’t be rude. He came all this way and brought you a gift. Don’t make him sad.”

Yuck. Who am I to give a child directives over her personal physical boundaries? Why would I encourage her to give of her affection if she doesn’t feel comfortable doing it on her own? Sometimes the family members provide pressure – openly or passive-aggressively; which makes me feel bad. But there’s more to this…

It took some introspection, but the real truth is, my demands had more to do about me as a mother – about my fear of failing in some way. What would these family members think of my ability to mother if my daughter is impolite? If my child doesn’t want to conform to this manner of greeting, will others think less of me? Nobody likes a spoiled, rude brat! I’m not going to be that parent!

The turning point occurred this past summer. Our family traveled to Spain on vacation and during dinner one evening, one of the waiters approached our daughter while my husband and I were seated at the same table and patted her on the head gently. “Hello, princess!” he said in Spanish, while stroking her arm. “Are you having fun on your holiday?” He then caressed her cheek.

The warm nature of Spanish culture affords strangers the option to express their emotions in this way freely. It’s not uncommon – in the same way, for example, that it’s normal for great aunt Jane to pinch her nephew’s cheeks (nobody likes that, by the way). Physical affection, even by strangers, is socially acceptable in many cultures and certainly not frowned upon.

But our daughter lost it. Frozen, she began sobbing in her seat. I could see that she was uncertain of what she was “allowed” or expected to do.

That’s where I take the blame. She didn’t want to be impolite and disappoint her parents, but she also didn’t want a stranger (in a foreign country no less) touching her. She was terrified.

The friendly waiter didn’t understand her emotional outburst. I resisted my instinct that wanted to explain it away by saying she was shy or whatever. Instead, I explained to him that she doesn’t want to be touched. Period. He left, looking puzzled by what had transpired.

When he stepped away, I looked into my daughter’s eyes and told her firmly that I had been wrong in the past, telling her to be polite. I explained that she was entitled to push him away, tell him to go away, or whatever she wanted to do to feel safe. I was wrong to prioritize manners over physical boundaries. She needs to know she can say 'no' if something doesn't feel right. While she needed to understand differences in cultures, she also needed to trust her own intuition. It goes unsaid that this a message that must be provided to our children clearly and frequently. I’ve seen too many #metoo posts out there to think otherwise.

There are many ways to teach our children about manners and social customs. We can model it ourselves; we can discuss how our behaviors might affect others. But when it comes to boundaries, I now feel confident in my stance with family members and strangers to honor her boundaries. Her body is hers and no one has the right to kiss, caress, or touch her without her consent. We now teach our daughter to express herself in however way she feels necessary when boundaries are overstepped. Mom and dad were wrong to force it – just because we wanted her to be polite to family (or anyone else).

As the old adage goes, we don’t get instructions with our newborns. Parenting is trial and error, learning and relearning, making mistakes, and correcting them as soon and as often as possible.

What are some parenting mistakes you’ve made, and what have you done to correct them? Share your stories with us.

Tags : parenting   conscious parenting   mindful parenting   manners   

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