At 15 ½, my nephew towers over me. But when he was about 3 years old, and still much shorter than me, I used to catch him as he ran by and hug him. One day, he muttered “I hate it when you do that you know”. To which I replied light-heartedly, “I know, but I’m your auntie.”
While my bigger regret is that I’d let my relationship with him, and my nieces, get to the point where hugs and kisses were no longer freely given and received, now that I’m a parent I am also sorry that I so blithely dismissed his right to bodily autonomy. A hug from an aunt may not seem like a big deal, but if he didn’t welcome it, and I knew he didn’t welcome it, it was not okay for me to do it.
These days, I have frequent discussions with my husband about “encouraging” our own boys to hug or kiss relatives and friends. I say if they don’t want to, they should not be forced or nagged. It’s one thing to suggest it; it’s another to tell them they must. He doesn’t disagree—and he gets my point about how cajoling them to hug Great Aunt Agnes sets them up to be manipulated into touching “Uncle” Jake just because he’s a grown up and says so. But my husband also feels familial affection should be nurtured, and that lack of it can cause offense.
It’s also difficult for him to fathom that when I was a child—and really, even today—tickling felt like a sort of torture. So while our children seem to enjoy roughhousing and being tickled—ask for it, in fact—the moment they say “no” or “stop”, I believe it needs to cease. They may just be joking, but we need to take their words at face value. Not only do I want them to know their bodies are theirs alone, but the last thing I want my boys to learn from us is that the proper response to NO is more of the same. Or, “oh come on, it doesn’t hurt”; “we’re just having a little fun”; or maybe worst of all, “if you loved me, it would be okay…” We may not have ever said these things, but they could be implied.
I usually avoid reading or watching the news. I feel it’s biased and sensational, and that I don’t need to be haunted by horrible images of things I am helpless to change. But certain headlines and news reports filter through, and sometimes I click. I’ve been disturbed by a couple of stories recently (you can probably guess which ones), and found myself wondering, aside from giving up on the human race completely, what can I do?
And I think the most important thing I can do, as a mother of two boys, is to raise them to respect themselves, respect others, respect women. To protect them, of course, but to raise them not to hurt others, either. While parents of daughters will no doubt go on telling their girls how to protect themselves from rape, I’ll do my part in raising my boys—well, not to rape. Teaching them that forcing sex on another person is never okay, that joking about rape is never okay. And I completely agree with Avital Norman Nathman, who writes here, “I will not have anyone excuse my son for being ‘too young’ or ‘just a boy.’ I will not devalue him like that.”