Stop Hugging Me: A Tale of Toddler Hugs, Brussels Sprouts, and Consent
“SNOWFLAKE!!! NOOOOOOOO! STOOOOOOOPPP!! PLEEEEEEAAAAAAAAASSSSSE”
I rush into the room to prevent bones breaking or keppies splitting or eyeballs somehow popping straight out of their skulls like baseballs out of a pitching machine, because three-year-olds, amiright?
“SNOWFLAKE! STOP HUGGING MEEEEEEEEE!”
Right. Hugging. That devious toddler scheme to ruin a big sister’s day.
I breathe. No imminent hospital trips. No burgeoning psychopathy. Just another opportunity–of like twenty a day–to teach the kids about consent.
“Snowflake. If your sister doesn’t want to be hugged, stop hugging her.”
“BUT I WANT TO HUG HER.”
“I know. But if she says no, you stop, no matter how much you want to hug her.”
“BUT I WANT TO HUG HER.”
“BUT I DO.”
“I know, honey, but when people say no about their bodies, you stop. It doesn’t matter what you want.”
I only barely resist the indulgent flash-forwards to college, when an unimaginably grown-up Snowflake tussles with an exciting bed-mate and immediately withdraws at the first “Um, can we stop please?” In that instant, I win mothering. His dorm UPSs me a trophy.
My spouse and I have approached parenthood as the most important way we can practice tikkun olam, the Jewish injunction to repair the world. If we can help make a few more righteous people who treat the earth and other people with respect and understanding, that’s like 60 years of a permanent, ongoing mitzvah. We have looked forward to raising feminists, and to exploring what that might look like with both The Lumpkin (a lovely grade school girl) and our preschooler Snowflake (so named by his sister before he was born). We reassure ourselves that these young folks really do seem to be capable of building a better world than we grew up in–one in which they can both expect and demand equal opportunities for all kids.
We’ve had careful conversations about monster and flower t-shirts, about sensibly colored grey toy castles and ahistorical, pandering pink ones, about empoweringment (???). But, except for the actual toys in their actual little hands, most of these conversations have been theoretical. Like making a wish on an eyelash and blowing it off a thumb.
We had no idea that we would be afforded the opportunity for such hands-on, daily lessons in one of the most basic tenets of contemporary feminism: the idea that no means no. That people’s bodies are their own. That no one gets to touch your body without your permission.
We want to celebrate the exuberant physicality of our son’s love for his big sister. But we also need to teach him that if someone doesn’t want to be touched, dude, don’t touch that person. No matter how much you want to. Express your love by listening instead.
So I say, “Hey! Snowflake! You can hug me!!!” And his slumping scowl conveys to me that a mom hug sounds about as good as boiled brussels sprouts (seriously, roast them with olive oil, salt and pepper instead. They’re like popcorn). And I don’t mind being boiled brussels sprouts (does anyone even boil them anymore?) because I’m pretty sure that my son–and my daughter–will know how to treat others with respect. To roast them with olive oil, salt and pepper in a really hot oven. To caramelize them. To keep their sprouts-loving hands to themselves when they hear “no.” And to expect the same treatment from others.
Elizabeth Freudenthal is a child health policy specialist for the state agency that administers Colorado Medicaid. She’s been an academic, a journalist, a nonprofit advocate, and a barely reformed know-it-all. She’s a proud alum of two local Jewish philanthropic leadership programs, Roots and Branches and Transforming Conversations. She founded Blue Braid, a Jewish feminism discussion and networking group. She bakes whole wheat muffins on the regular for her family in Denver and blogs on the irregular at Thinker for Hire.
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