The stories all seem to blur over the years into one message. Girls and their bodies tempt men. That’s not a message I want for either of my kids. The message I’ve aimed for is that their bodies are their own.
This message started when they were young. Emma was extremely shy, to the point where I was looking into getting her in to see a doctor about selective mutism, before she finally started speaking outside the house when she was four years old. I think she was closer to six years old before our family doctor ever heard a word out of her mouth and those weren’t to him, she was explaining the digestive system to me while he was around the corner (The Magic School Bus is a great show). When she was at home she was the biggest chatterbox ever (and still is). In public she was completely silent, unless she had something urgent to whisper in my ear.
I got pressure from friends and family members to push her to speak to them, to urge her to hug and kiss them when she showed every sign of not wanting to. I stood my ground.
Her body, her rules.
Jeremy was pretty much the opposite of Emma. He never met a stranger he didn’t like. He’d talk to anyone, hold anyone’s hand, and when I had company he’d work his way around the room, sitting on everyone’s lap and hugging everyone in turn. When he was three, I think he proposed to everyone I know.
His body, his rules (although I made sure he didn’t wander away with the mailman).
I am very sensitive to touch and textures. I don’t like seams or tags (the back of my neck crawls at the thought) and I was in my mid to late teens before I could even tolerate wearing jeans or any pants with a button. But the touch I found the hardest was tickling.
I loved being tickled, to a point, and I reached that point very quickly. That’s when I’d say “no” and “stop”. But those were ignored because I was laughing, so I must be having fun. Except I wasn’t. By that point the tickling was almost painful and I was crying while I laughed. My father and/or grandfather didn’t stop until I wet myself and then I’d run into the bathroom, totally humiliated, to cry alone. There I’d vow never to get tickled again. Then I’d watch as my two sisters got tickled. They were having so much fun and I wanted to have fun too, so eventually (days, weeks, or months later) I’d join in with the same results as before.
I learned another lesson then. It was my fault. I shouldn’t have joined in if I didn’t want to be tickled. Except I did want to be tickled. I just wanted it to stop when I said “no”. And it was my fault because I laughed. How was anyone supposed to know I wasn’t happy? How was anyone supposed to know that my gasped “no, please stop” meant anything since I was laughing at the same time? Except I couldn’t stop laughing. You can imagine my fury when I discovered it’s an involuntary reaction to tickling.
I tickled both Emma and Jeremy when they were little but I had strict rules. Both “no” and “stop” were sacrosanct. Tickling stopped that exact second and did not start again until they said they were ready. I made sure to enforce this with my parents as well. I did not want my kids to go through what I did. At first Emma was irritated.
“I didn’t mean it,” she once informed me when I stopped because she’d said “no”.
“If you didn’t mean it then don’t say it,” I replied. “I will stop every single time you tell me to.” She quickly learned the rules.
Jeremy was trickier since he was non verbal (due to autism) until he was three. I went with non-verbal cues with him for the most part although anything that sounded like a “no” was honoured.
I hate being tickled now. I can’t remember which child tickled me but my automatic reaction was to yell “no” and burst into tears. Neither of them have tried again.
My body, my rules.
And then there was clothes. I bought them for the purpose of keeping the kids warm in the winter and cooler in the summer, and that was it. I horrified one of my friends by allowing Emma to roll down a hill in a school outfit. What if it got dirty? I equally horrified one of my sisters when I exchanged a present she’d bought Emma. It was a crop top with three quarter length sleeves. Emma was four years old and had never asked for a tight fitting short shirt. I simply told Emma it was too small and exchanged it for two loose and comfortable shirts. Not out of prudishness, if Emma wanted to take her shirt off and run around topless that was her choice. The shirt wasn’t one she’d chosen.
Clothing continued to be an issue with Emma. She has an eclectic style that involves short shorts paired with ripped tights, layered shirts with spaghetti straps, and lots of jewelry. It suits her. Her father has made several comments over the years, one memorable occasion involved a Christening on his side of the family. He spent an entire weekend referring to Emma as “that one” and claiming her choice of clothing had destroyed his whole trip. When the two of them were finally dropped off, he made a point of only saying goodbye to Jeremy with a very sarcastic “I love you” added, loudly enough to ensure Emma could hear and emphatic enough to make her realize she was being excluded from that love. She started cutting herself the next day. Clothing should not be a reason to withhold love.
And I have a long standing argument with family and teachers over Jeremy’s hair. He has grown it long multiple times since he was eleven years old and each time you’d think he was setting fire to the Canada flag, using kittens for kindling by the reaction he’s got. It’s hair people, get over it.
I lost a Facebook friend last year when she posted a story about Mohammed Ali talking to one of his daughters, telling her to protect her modesty and virtue; saying she was like a precious pearl or gem. That she needed to stay hidden until the right man searched hard enough to find her. And I argued recently in a parenting group that virginity should not be a source of pride in your child. You can be proud of values and beliefs that lead to that choice but not the virginity itself. You can have those same (or similar) values and beliefs without virginity.
I was at work yesterday and one of my young coworkers made a comment that got everyone laughing. I asked him what he’d said. He stared at me in horror and said he couldn’t tell me, while everyone giggled at the thought. In real life I’m seen as bubbly, cheerful, friendly, and a hug dispenser (yes to anyone I’ve issued online hugs… I am a massive hugger in real life). I’m also seen as completely and utterly innocent and naive. Which I am. But that hasn’t stopped me from dispensing the most complete and real sex education I could manage for both my kids simply because it’s important.
There are several things I’ve taught my kids over the years. One (which started way back at the tickling age) was that “no” and “stop” mean just that. I don’t care when it’s said. I don’t care if you’re half a heartbeat away from intercourse. You stop and that’s it. Two is that consent has to be both verbal and sober. Your time together will mean so much more if no one vomits and both of you remember it in the morning. And three is that no one’s “asking for it”. I don’t care if they’re stark naked, they still aren’t asking for anything (except maybe a sunburn).
The articles and comments regarding modesty worry me, especially when it comes to Emma, as they are all one sided. I haven’t read a single article, blog entry or meme aimed at modesty and teenage boys (other than ones asking girls to be modest so they don’t tempt teenage boys). Jeremy’s had people scream at him from car windows but he’s never had the experiences Emma’s had. He’s never had adults offer him open containers of alcohol, demanding he take a sip and getting angry at his refusal. He’s never had repeated demands to give out his phone number. Emma told me of one incident where a man repeatedly asked her out, ignoring her repeated refusals. She finally lied and told him she was a lesbian AND had a girlfriend. He ignored this and continued to ask her out. Then followed her onto the bus and sat down beside her (ignoring countless other empty seats) and proceeded to harass her for the whole twenty minute ride. No one at the stop said anything, despite the fact she was obviously underage and uncomfortable. No one said anything on the bus either. Jeremy’s not concerned about waiting at the bus stop at night time. I can’t say the same for Emma anymore.