Perhaps children should wear warning labels: “I might look cute and what I’m doing might look easy, but chances are, I’m putting 100% of my most serious effort into whatever it is. For this and a load of other reasons, please don’t touch me.”
Why do we think we have the right to touch children? The younger the child, the more welcome we feel to touch and hold him or her without permission. It seems to me that we get this totally backward…shouldn’t it be the other way around?
I’m a touchy, feely, demonstrative person. Perhaps overly so. As I mentioned in Can Babies Love Too Much? – Teaching Children To Give Affection With Respect, I impulsively hug adults I’ve just met. I touch people on the shoulder to emphasize “I like you”, “I care” or “I’m sorry”.
But the younger the person, the less able they are to say “no”, glare at us disapprovingly, or push us away. Young children are especially incapable of indicating more subtle discomfort. “That doesn’t feel good. That tickles. Please don’t, I don’t know you yet. You interrupted me.”
Some believe it’s okay for babies and toddlers to be swooped up, “loved up” (as one parent put it), thrown up in the air, tickled, rough-housed, pushed down slides, etc. Yes, they might seem to enjoy those things. When we’re smiling and laughing, our babies want to mirror this, and they are the very best sports we’ll ever find. They’re all about trust.
But don’t we want to ensure their security, self-confidence, respect for their boundaries and those of others? Every interaction children have teaches them their place in the world, how they should be treated and how they should relate to others. Children wholeheartedly accept the level of respect they are given.
Touch is a fundamental need for babies, but the way we touch matters. Infant expert Magda Gerber has been criticized because of her recommendation to ask babies, or at least warn them, before picking them up, even when they’re crying. She believed infants could and should be given choices and the little bit of time they need to make them. “With infants we have to be even more careful, because they cannot tell us…” For advising this ultra-sensitivity and respect, Gerber is sometimes misunderstood as being against picking up babies.
It’s vital that we teach our children that they belong to themselves. They must know they have a right to their personal space and boundaries. This is not a lesson that can wait until age 3 or 4, and it’s a lesson only we can provide, because society is way behind on this one. We may have to resort to the warning labels.
(Photo by Details of the Day on Flickr)
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