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I was ten years old, and I was staying at my maternal grandmother’s house. My parents had separated the year before, and my father was coming to town.
To get ready for his visit, my grandmother took me to her hair salon. I had never had my hair washed and dried by a professional, in a salon. This was a first, and it was exciting!
The hairdresser was very nice and chatted with me and my grandmother as she worked. When it came time to blow dry my hair, I told her that I didn’t want anything fancy. I had two long red ribbons and I wanted my father to make pigtails and braid them into my hair.
My grandmother asked if I had them with me, and I did, tucked safely in my pocket. She suggested I let the hairdresser braid them into my hair. I said No. They both encouraged me. I stuck to my guns and wouldn’t give up the ribbons.
Back in the car, my grandmother was livid. She said I had embarrassed her, that the hairdresser was far more capable of braiding ribbons into my hair than my father could ever be. For the rest of the drive, she stewed and I sulked.
Grandma had tried to do something sweet, but it had ended badly. What I remember is not special girl time, but deciding that my grandmother was crazy.
When we got home, Dad was there and my grandmother told him the story and made light of it, but I knew she was still angry. I sat in front of Dad’s chair and he braided the ribbons into my hair, and I was happy. I was also worried about being stuck with a crazy grandmother when he was gone.
What Grandma didn’t get was that I didn’t care how nice the braids looked – I wanted that special moment with my dad. I had communicated a boundary – that the hair dresser could wash and dry my hair, but that the braiding was reserved for my dad – and she was angry with me and embarrassed by it. I knew that I get to say what happens with my body – which includes my hair – and my grandmother thought that appearances (of both the braids and an obedient granddaughter) were more important. They’re not.
This is a very subtle example, but I think it reveals the problem better than writing about sexual assault or mistakes made by partying teens. Obviously you get to say who touches you and how, right? Yet, that’s not most kids’ experiences.
Adults overrun children’s boundaries all the time. Nine times out of ten it’s unnecessary and only leads to loss of trust. Kids are told to hug or kiss someone, and if they don’t want to, the adults get embarrassed and angry like my grandmother did. A child younger or less stubborn than I was learns to override their own discomfort and please others. They learn to ignore their boundaries.
Did this happen to you?
Did you learn to please others and ignore that uh-oh voice inside? That can make it really difficult to navigate the world as an adult. It’s hard to know where others end and where you begin, what you need and what you can compromise.
Instead of that, let’s zealously guard a child’s right to say what happens to their body. Look for the subtleties and make sure your child isn’t receiving mixed messages. Reaffirm to your child that they get to decide what is ok and what isn’t, and they have the right to say no, even to an adult.
That’s a big step towards preventing sexual abuse, and when the time comes for sexual experimentation, your child will already have the skills they need to sense and defend their boundaries. That’s huge. Give a child in your life that gift.
In support of you,