As Christmas music fills my life this month, I am regularly running into the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” It’s catchy, easy to sing, and has the music sounds and sway of the season. I’ll admit, in the past I loved to sing along. But a couple of years ago, I heard myself, what I was saying, what I was modeling, and this song became nothing like what I wanted the holiday season to be. The song is centered on a man talking a woman into staying over even though she says no, over and over again. He doesn’t give up and we’re supposed to find this endearing. This message reinforces rape culture, carrying the message that a no is not a no, and that if men just coaxed us enough, then we’d give in. I am always baffled by how much air play it gets, but even more profoundly now in the heart of the #metoo movement.
This year, my little one is starting to embrace Christmas music. I hear her singing it to herself and am impressed with how many songs she knows. But she never sings this one. Not because she’s aware of the message, but simply because I won’t allow her to hear it. I switch the radio station every time it comes on, or skip it on Pandora. I am not willing to expose her to this message, and I won’t listen to it either. I know that I can’t avoid it all together, and one day I plan to let her hear it and talk about it. But explaining the potential harm to her body simply because she presents as a cisgender girl is not so easy at this age. I’ve already tried and she just ended up concerned and confused. So instead, my partner and I read through the advice of many and have implemented some strategies to lay the groundwork for understanding consent.
At this stage in her life, she still demands things of others and sits in a world of egocentrism. It’s accurate for her age and we just need to embrace it. So one tactic we have tried is teaching her the concept of privacy. We have taught her that we can request privacy with no explanation and she has to respect that. We’re also teaching her that we can say no to being touched. Last night when she was having a minor meltdown, she grabbed my partner’s leg and wouldn’t let go. I could hear him say, “This is my body and I am asking you to let go.” Mind you it’s hard to achieve this during a tantrum, but we hold this message in consistency as often as we can.
We also ask for the same permission from her. If she is having a tantrum, I do not hug her or pick her up, I wait for her to calm a bit and make it an offer. Sometimes she takes it and many times not. I’ll admit that when she was a baby, it was so easy just to kiss her all the time and cuddle. But once she started to establish boundaries, we have worked hard to respect them. I ask for hugs and kisses now. If she says no, it’s just a no. I don’t act sad or upset. It’s just what it is. I want her to know that bodily contact can be linked to love but that love doesn’t automatically mean assumed bodily contact.
We also do the same with tickles. If she says stop, we stop. Even if we think she’s playing. We let her say, “just kidding keep tickling me.” And we acknowledge that “no” is a sentence in itself. She doesn’t have to explain her no, it just is. If I ask her to put on her coat and she says no, them she doesn’t wear it. I will offer that it’s cold and I’m afraid she’ll be too cold without it. She often then agrees or we compromise by not zipping it up. But just the other day, she insisted on a no and I let it go. Two minutes into the walk to the store she asked for her coat because it was cold. As much as I felt “I told you so,” I instead held that she needs to explore what her body needs too. She gets to say no, she gets to say yes, and she always can change her mind.
Finally, we make her do the same with other kids. She asks other kids if she can hug them before going in for the embrace. When others ask her for a hug and she says no, we offer alternatives. A high five, a fist bump or a wave. I’ll admit that this gets hard with family and friends who don’t see her often. I do my best to act like it’s no big deal, but I can’t miss the hurt on their faces sometimes. It strikes me so profoundly how we associate connection and love with physical closeness. A refused hug from a 4 year old is never a slight to someone they love, but simply a way to maintain control. We should embrace that and encourage it.
There are so many rich resources on how to do this as a parent and I feel so thankful for all of them that have taught us how to navigate some of this. I will admit that I see her as literally my single most perfect creation. But I am working to remind myself that my body made hers and I am a guide to her growth, but I do not own her. Since the start, she’s been in charge of who she is, her making as a person. I am simply a coach, hopefully a trusted one, to offer options along the way. I inherently believe in her ability to be an incredible person, full of love, kindness, strength, passion, drive, beauty.
So my hope is that maybe when she does hear that song one day, she feel compelled to change the words…”Baby it’s cold outside,” so I’m going to wear a hat.