It's a Matter of Safety

The Kewl kids and I went to the park yesterday and after a good hour of running around, we decided to go across the road for an ice cream. There was no pedestrian crossing so we walked over to the curb, then - as you do when you have small children - I went into control mode. I picked up Mr R, as I didn't have the pram and his walking is too slow to be safe while crossing the road. I asked Miss J and Miss F to hold hands with TJ, to remember to listen for my instructions and to help me to check for cars. Then I asked Miss V to hold my hand. Er - problem - my independent 3yo was not about to hold my hand when nobody else had to.

Standing by the side of the road, with 4 other children eager for the icecream that was waiting for them on the other side and the danger of passing traffic in between, my first instinct was to reach down and grab Miss V's hand anyway. When I tried this, she did the whole, 'hands behind her back, stepping away from me', thing. Then she said something awesome...

"Don't touch me! I said no!"

Man I love it when my kids say things like that!

I did a quick check to make sure Miss J, Miss F and TJ were safe and staying put, then I did some risk management with Miss V.

Me, "OK, you can cross the road without holding my hand if you stay right beside me all the way to the other side. If you get too far away I will use my hand to stop you without asking and you will have to hold my hand next time. Do you agree?"

Miss V, "Yes."

Me, "Where are you going to walk while we cross?"

Miss V, "Right beside you."

Me, "OK."

We proceeded to check for cars together, then we all crossed the road, with Miss V walking right beside me all the way to the other side.

Before I could thank her for such fantastic behaviour, a woman who was sitting at a cafe table a few meters away stood up, approached me and said, "Excuse me, but do you know how dangerous that was?"

She had obviously spotted us crossing the road and was concerned about my decision to respect Miss V's choice not to hold my hand (either that or she was just a nosey twit).

The conversation that followed went pretty much like this:

Me, "Do you mean my 3 year old choosing not to hold my hand?"

Woman, "Yes - this is a busy road, what if she ran off and got hit by a car?"

Me, "Thanks for your concern, I'm glad someone is looking out for kids in our community. If I thought Miss V was at risk of running off, I would not have let her walk by herself. She chose not to hold my hand today and I respect her choice."

Woman, "When it's a matter of safety, children shouldn't have a choice. I really don't think it is worth the risk."

At this point, I would usually just finish the conversation and walk away, but this person seemed genuine in her concern and although her words were confrontational, her body language was quite open and she seemed willing to listen to my perspective, too. So I continued...

Me, "Speaking of children's safety - Do you know how many kids are sexually assaulted before they turn 18?"

Woman, "No, and I don't see the relevence.."

Me, "1 in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys. Most of the time, perpetrators are people the children know. I would much rather teach my children that it is OK to say no to adults they know touching them and manage the risk of crossing a road when I am present, than make my daughter hold my hand and potentially risk her holding the hand of a perpetrator when I am not around."

The woman went on to say that making my daughter hold my hand to cross a road had absolutely nothing to do with sexual assault and to suggest it did made me "a total fruit loop".

That was where our conversation ended yesterday, but I'd really like to continue it here.

Holding hands to cross a road is really a poor example, as there are many, many other factors at play and I think it confuses the issue. I'm not saying that making children hold someone's hand to cross a road puts them at risk of sexual assault, nor am I saying that children can make whatever decisions they like and we should respect them.

What I am saying is that yesterday, the risk of Miss V not holding my hand was minimal, and reinforcing her ability to say no to me touching her was more important.

is what I'm curious about.

I know that I am a total fruit loop, but I would really love to know what you think about children's safety, sexual assault and their right to say no to adults?


Fe said...

I am a road-crossing hand-holding nazi... but would never DREAM of telling another parent "off" for not doing it.

I know that there have been times when my kids (Boo particularly) has negotiated issues like that with me. I love the way you established the ground rules with her, and especially loved that you respected her right to say no.

Now, Boo would have run off into traffic, so I could never have let him not hold my hand, but that proves the point that we shouldn't judge others' parenting because we don't know their kids' behaviour. Toto would have behaved beautifully, btw.

I think this is example of exemplary parenting. Really. xoxo

Fe said...

Forgot to mention... teaching your children to say no is a million miles away from giving them no boundaries and letting them choose their own behaviour in every single situation.

I think it is a hugely important lesson in this day and age. I think (and this is just my opinion), that once you set the boundaries for what is acceptable behaviour in your own family (as you did with Miss V) then you need to let your kids work around within those boundaries.

And if we teach them that they can never say "No" to an adult (including their parents) then we're setting them up for potential danger.

Bush Babe said...

I pretty much had this conversation with Violet yesterday in our little town... as we travel to Brisbane quite often, I am very concerned about road safety - Mr Incredible got hit by a car as a child. It can happen so easily.

In the end, I told her she could hold my shirt if she didn't want to hold my hand, but I needed to know EXACTLY where she was at all times. To be honest I think that it IS a boundary thing - she wants her independence in this case, I need her to be safe, and I need to be SURE she is safe (from passing traffic) and not darting off somewhere.

The sexual harrassment part of this equation is complicated - I hope that I do my job in ensuring only trustworthy people are around my children (after all I am charged with protecting their innocence) until they are old enough to make a decision about what is OK and what is not. I guess that time will be arriving soon... with school and activities that don't involve me. They are already aware of what is appropriate touching and what is not.

It's a tricky thing - but I want my children to always feel they have utter trust in me and their father. That they respond implicitly to instruction from us. So that those situations when we may not have the luxury of time to argue 'yes' or 'no' with them, don't end in injury or worse.

I think you do an awesome job with your charges... our styles might be different in some areas, but I think we both seek the same things from our kids.

(Gosh I just did a blog post in your comments - sorry!)

Kathy said...

Wow, this is a complicated one. I must admit I am adamant about physical contact with my 6 and 4 year old girls when crossing roads, but they can choose if that's holding my hand, holding onto the side of the pram (which contains the 9-month-old), holding my shirt etc. They have to be in contact though and it's not negotiable, even though Miss 6 is very reliable and would almost certainly adhere to an instruction to walk beside me. (Miss 4 not so much...)

I guess the thing is that it's about knowing your own child, evaluating competing risks and making a judgement call. Let's face an uncomfortable truth - no decision we make as parents is without risk. Teaching your kids to respect their bodies, set boundaries and say no when they need to is awesome and protects them from one kind of risk. Allowing them to refuse a safety-based rule set by their parents might - and I do say MIGHT - expose them to another kind of risk. I tell my kids, "You are entitled to ask me why I am telling you to do something, and I will always give you a reason - but if I say it's for your safety and can explain why, you will need to go with what I say."

I also think it's possible to teach kids to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate touch, or, to put it another way, touch that they can and should refuse and touch that is appropriate and might be necessary no matter what they want. Contact crossing a road as opposed to being forced to kiss their uncle, for instance. (I absolutely *loathe* that whole 'oh give your uncle a hug' thing, forcing kids to intimate physical contact they don't want. I will have no part of that for my children.)

That said, it's only my opinion. I can't imagine ever being brash enough to schlep up to a complete stranger and question their parenting decision like this, especially when the proof of the pudding had shown the parent amply justified in her decision (after all Miss V complied!)

Mountaingirl said...

Given the circumstances I am with you Al - and I admire you for respecting your daughter - and knowing her well enough not to demand holding her hand when crossing the road. Can I have a mom like you?

Debby said...

As the mother of a sexually abused child, I understand exactly what you are doing, Al. However, I do have to say, I'd have probably done the road crossing thing a little differently. I'd have asked her to hold my shirt tail to be sure that I didn't stumble or something, with Mr. R. I'd have wanted her to be holding on, so that I knew she was in arm's reach in case of an emergency. The other thing is that while I think it is commendable that your children understand about their right to say no, it seems to me that they should also be able to trust that their mother's touch is not a bad touch. Ever. No matter what.

All this being said, Al, I finish with this: Parenting is a matter of choices. It is YOUR choice to decide how to best raise your children. You made the decision here. As the mother of your children, you have that right. I'd have told the judgemental woman that this was a decision you made regarding your children, and that no. 1, no child was injured, no. 2, you weren't particularly interested in hearing her sermon. And I would have walked away without engaging her.

Alison said...

Fe - Am totally with you on setting boundaries, and I agree that parents know (mostly) what their kids are capable of. I would never have let Miss V cross without holding my hand if I didn't think she would follow my instructions exactly. In this instance, teaching her that she had the right to say no was more important.

Bush Babe - When J and F were first learning to walk we spent a lot of time out in the paddocks where they could run (and fall) wherever they liked. As they started walking more when were were out I was a total road safety nazi. I was so terrified because they did not have any concept of roads or cars, and like you say, accidents can happen so quickly.
I think that now the girls are all older, they are able to understand and appreciate what "road safety" means and although I would never let them cross a road completely by themselves, I'd like to think that if I was not there (or was not looking), they would know what to do (and that is freeze at LEAST 2meters from the edge and wait for an adult to cross with you!)
I also think that as their dad was killed in a car accident and we have had many conversations about cars being stronger than bodies, they understand why crossing a road can be so dangerous.

And never apologise for commenting - I love the discussions that blogging and commenting facilitates!

Hi Kathy - So loved hearing your thoughts on this, thanks! I think you're totally right about decisions we make as parents all coming with some element of risk. I think risk management is a HUGE part of being a parent and it's the evaluation of these risks that sets us apart (not better or worse, just different).
I also agree that some rules regarding children's safety are and should be non negotiable.
And I LOVE your view on making kids hug of kiss relatives. Never going to happen in this family, either.

MG - Thanks for saying your bit! You always say such beautiful things, too. The Kewl girls absolutely love you!

Debby - Last time we were in a car park I said to Miss V, "Could you please hold my hand so I don't get lost?"
She replied, "Please don't patronise me, mum. I will hold your hand but you can just ask normally, ok?"

I try to teach my kids that my touch will always be good touch, but I am human, and that is not always the case. While I would NEVER hit or smack and child, sometimes at the end of the day my patience wears very thin and if a child is being particularly uncooperative, brushing hair time is not always a pleasant experience. I have, once or twice, brushed a little too hard. That is not a good touch - but they CAN trust me to stop when they tell me I am hurting them.

Thanks for your thoughts on this, Deb. I really appreciate your perspective and always love hearing from you :-)

Lin said...

Ah, road safety and kids is one of my favoutie topics! I have allowed my daughter to cross the road without holding my hand since she was probably about 3yo. But the day she didn't have to hold my hand was also the day that I started training her in how to safely cross a road. She has to look for cars and tell me when it's safe to cross every single time we cross a road. If she's too slow, we start again. If I know she cannot properly see the road, we start again. It takes forever, but it's worth it. She does it automatically now, without thinking. I have seen her run across a dirt track and look right-left-right first! She also knows not to stop in the middle of the road, not to run, skip or jump in case she falls and she is well aware of the consequences of any mistake she might make. I think it beats forcing her to hold my hand.

As for the no touching... I also am a bit torn on that. But I do think you are right in arguing that a child has a right to refuse physical contact from anyone including their parent.

katepickle said...

At first I thought this was a complicated issue... but after a bit of a think I am not so sure.

You want your kids to be safe. You know your kids, better than anyone (especially random strangers). You respect your children. You made a judgement based on those three things - safety, knowledge and respect.

Just because your choice may have been different to mine (for the record I often ask my girls to hold my back pockets because they don't want to hold their brother's hand and I've been told off for that too!), doesn't make it wrong, or 'more right' either.

If people who love and care for my kids don't respect them, if they manipulate them and don't empower them to make good decisions or force their will on them without discussion then what hope do they have when it comes to making good choices and decisions and standing up for themselves in situations where the people don't have their best interests at heart?

shygirl said...

I love that you are respecting your children's wishes and abilities. I am very much into giving children the chance to practice independence while being supervised. They will need those skills in the future. And learning not to automatically do whatever an adult says is so important too. Negotiation helps promote self-esteem, problem-solving skills, ect.
I am so far from being a perfect mom and caregiver(I'm a trained children's caregiver)but the children in my care are given the freedom to make their own - safe - decisions. There is always a risk, but I do my best to make sure it is a minimal one. In your case, knowing that Miss V would do well, and being within hands reach to help if you needed to, seems quite reasonable to me.
People aren't ready to hear about sexual abuse yet, are they? Maybe emphasizing the importance of children being able to stand up for themselves, to lessen the risks of ANY type of abuse, is the way to start conversations? I think its important to teach kids to stand up to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

Anonymous said...

I know this is an old post, but I really wanted to comment, it struck a chord in me.
I 100% agree with you. While my daughter is only 6months old and therefore touching against her will is not so much of an issue right now, I constantly come up against this attitude from people, and I find it bizarre and damaging. As a sexual abuse (and eating disorder) survivor myself, I am hyper-aware of the fact that my daughter is not MINE. She does not belong to me. I am her gaurdian, and my job is to raise her well and keep her safe, not to make her do what I want her to or to teach her 'obedience'.
To illustrate, briefly, I stayed with my sister for a week last year. She lives in another country and her children, my nieces, had never really met me before. 2yo P knew I was her aunty, but that didn't mean much, I was still a stranger. One day P was acting up a little and I asked her not to do something (not for the fun of being bossy, I think she was just doing something I knew her mother didn't want her doing) she ignored me, so I asked her again. When she ignored me again, her mother shouted at her. Not for exhibiting the bad behaviour, but for not listening to what I told her to do. I was and still am intensely uncomfortable about this. I'm a stranger! Why on earth SHOULD she have listened to me!
In a similar vein, I'm seen as quite bizarre among friends because I don't believe in allowing my baby to be passed continually from adult to strange adult, even when this distresses her. Apparently, I should just be forcing her to deal with it and one day 'she'll learn' to like having no control over her surroundings! Tip top.

The long and short of this comment is that children need to learn that their bodies belong to THEM, and they alone have the right to allow people to touch those bodies. Anyone who thinks children should only have a right to their only bodies once they reach adulthood is woefully sort sighted about how damaging that attitude can be.