Recently I read a post on Facebook, “Don’t ask my daughter to give you a kiss” which spoke of the need for parents to understand that they need to teach their children it is not necessary to hug and kiss everybody, and it is ok to refuse, if you dont want to do it. The right to say no, without feeling in any way guilty or bad about it is critical for a child. This is one of the ways of strengthening a child’s own defence against potential abuse, and while it is simplistic to say that this can address childhood abuse completely, the post highlighted the larger issue of needing to respect the autonomy of a child, needing to respect him or her as an adult. Why is this so difficult for us , even the child’s parents, or I should say, specially the child’s parents to do.
This whole lack of respect for autonomy is seen not just in transgressing the physical boundaries of the child, but also in our desire to make the child perform to a public. We are always keen to show off our child to others, wanting to show a new trick she has learnt, a new word she has picked up. Some of it is plain encouragement for something a child is learning, but where does encouragement stop and where does show off begin. At what point does the child simply become a plaything for the adult/parent?
Before I became a parent, I always felt that I would be one of those who will respect the child’s desires. I would not compel her to show off any skill, I would not encourage her to hug or kiss anybody, and most importantly, I would not make excuses for her if she refused to do it, whereby I am somehow communicating that her refusal was something wrong, which needed to be explained or excused away. She would have the right to do what she wanted.
That was typically the way I behaved with other children. I would always tell any parent not to force the child to say anything to me, or even come to me if she didnt feel like it. And I always made very negative judgments against parents who would force their child to do things.
But implementing this when you are a parent yourself is quite challenging. Even if you yourself feel that your child has the right to say no to a person, you are surrounded by people, including family members, who keep encouraging her to do otherwise. Some children, like my daughter, are naturally social, and dont have much of social anxiety, yet there are times and places when she refuses to go to someone. She needs the space to define her boundaries, and its not really good to compel her to go, or to make excuses to the person she is refusing to go to. I mean, too bad my child doesn’t come to you, but its her choice. This is no reflection on you as a person. You may be the greatest, kindest person, but right now, my child does not want to come to you.
But the bigger challenge is stopping the need to show off. I confess that frequently I do this myself. I ask my one year old to repeat something after me, respond to a certain question, or do a certain trick, specially in front of others. I think I do it partly because of my need for praise from others. Raising a child can be a lonely business, no matter how many people are there to support you and when someone praises my daughter for something, I draw vicarious pleasure from it, thinking its somehow a reflection of my parenting skills. In the case of many mothers/parent who has given up something else (a job or a hobby at least in part) in order to rear children, this need for acknowledgement of one’s own worth becomes very critical.
So this tendency is quite normal, but it still doesnt take away from the fact that somehow we are transgressing the boundaries of the child. That we are treating the child as less of a person or as a different person from an adult. I mean we never ask each other to sing or dance or jump randomly for our entertainment but we expect children to do it.
I guess letting go of this tendency is quite hard for parents. I am myself struggling with it, the only thing I have accomplished so far is not making negative judgments about parents who show off their kids. I can finally empathize with them.