A bathroom disagreement

I had a nerve-wracking incident come up the other day – an email from the school counselor expressing concern about something my daughter did. Very simply, in a hall bathroom she shared a stall with another student. They each went to the bathroom and then proceeded to play around in the bathroom instead of going back to class right away.

This warranted a discussion with the principal for both kids. My mind immediately went to work and I created a narrative of what they must be thinking. And I got angry. And quickly. In my head, I was sure that the main issue had to be that they peed in the same stall together. That this is inappropriate. That goodness forbid kids participate in a non-sexual activity as non-sexual beings in a shared space.

As a sexuality educator, trained curriculum developer and an advocate for the rights of kids and adolescents in a shunned sexualized world, let me be clear about a couple things here. I assumed that these kids were seen as bad for peeing in the same stall because in this society, naken bodies are wrong. And it’s not because these kids were inherently doing something out of their development, it’s because society assumes they are. As adults, we have lived past childhood into a sexualized world and body. And we can’t seem to unsee that, even in our kids. What they did was completely normal, but we still make it so much more than that.

After talking with my kid, it was even more evident that these two kids were incredibly respectful and responsible in the space they shared. There was an invitation to share a stall, without pressure. With consent. And they respected privacy boundaries by each turning their backs while the other actually used the toilet.

To me, the issue was that they broke a school rule. There is only one kid per stall. And they are not to play in the bathroom. This alone is not a principal needed response. It’s a simple discipline response, a reminder even, to not play in places you shouldn’t.

But I was led to believe that there was a larger issue here, that I should be concerned and that my kid is at fault because she invited the friend into the stall.

How often do we as parents share a stall with our kids? How often do siblings share stalls? Young friends? My kid and the friend have shared a stall before, on playdates, under parental supervision of myself and the other parent. And they respected and set personal boundaries there as well.

I know that the school needs to take things seriously because there could be a parent on the opposite side of me – seeing this through a sexualized lens and panicking. But isn’t that the problem? The system is failing us here. If this is not handled correctly, she may in fact feel shame and confusion about why it’s not ok to be around a friend in a bathroom when she did all that she has learned to establish her own needs and boundaries. Why is that not enough?

This morning, she said to me that she’s never been to the principal’s office before because she is not “usually bad.” I told her that she did nothing bad, that she broke a school rule and that they want to be sure she understands. But she doesn’t understand how she’s in more trouble than usual. I tried to explain that sometimes people get nervous and upset around bodies and that this might be the case here. I want her to know that many rules are set because some people believe that kids can do bad things, that we in this family believe are not bad at all. And instead are normal kid things to do. And that sometimes, these two don’t match up.

I told her to remember that I always have her back. That when I think they are wrong at school, that I will tell them. And she plans to apologize for playing around in the bathroom and not following the stall rules.

I fully realize that as you read this, this may trigger you. You may disagree with me or how I have handled it. I invite you to challenge yourself on this. What is coming up for you? How would you handle it? How would you protect your kid?

See there isn’t really a right way or a wrong way for us in this. But we can work together to be sure that our kids do not experience shame around their bodies. And that their normal stages of development are not mistaken for deviency. Kids are explorers and in fact so many behaviors that we deem as sexual among adults are simply play among kids. Playing doctor. Showing body parts. Touching one’s own body parts. Making dolls share a bed together or be naked together. Kids are understanding the world around them. And failing to let them explore a completely natural and normal part of their development can be harmful. It can lead to shame, silence, and a lack of communication when they do participate in sexual behaviors. I am not willing to take that risk. I know that feeling all too well. I think we can do better. My kid deserves better.

Follow Up: I did speak with the school and the feeling is mutual that their reactions are often rooted in the fear of the parents. I understand and also I don’t. I challenged them to consider that this might be the larger problem. And I asked that when my kid is spoken to that they are careful not to create a sense of shame. They assured me that this would not be the case.

I also spoke with the other parent involved. And I think it’s important to note that so many of us parents are in this together, but we often don’t talk about it. We can ask more of these schools. We can make it so our kids are not shamed as a result of worry of what a parent might do. We can make it so that being a kid is normal and that when parents struggle with an incident or what’s happening with their kid, then we work together through the situation among the adults, not through our kids.

I do dream of a world for this. And look forward to when we get there. Reaching out to the other parents is so important folks. If the other parent was not on the same page as me, I could have used it as an opportunity to connect on what’s best for our kids and to be sure that both kids are safe, loved, and able to move through this. To create a stream of honest communcation when normally there is so little. And we could have still disagreed and it would all be okay.

And sure, the other parent could have been mad and asked for punishment. But also, I am not responsible for other’s reactions. We can only hold our own and offer up love and support along the way. The goal is not to be the same, but to communicate. And to take care of our kids as we see fit. I am responsible for ensuring my kid’s behavior ensures both her own and the safety of others. And sharing a bathroom with another 6 year old, with consent, and with agreed upon privacy, is not a safety issue.

The real Santa lives in Rhode Island

My kid asked me this the other day…

“Does Santa really watch you all the time?”

I immediately said no. When we first started the idea of Santa, we decided he wouldn’t be the creepy version most of us are taught. This includes that Santa doesn’t watch you all the time. We tell her that he checks in occasionally to see how she’s doing, but that he relies on us as parents to help him.

I see her struggling with the idea of Santa so I’ve been thinking more on this and why we even have the Santa story in our house to begin with. I remember talking with my partner about it when our daughter was little. Would we just tell her the truth, or play the game? We decided on the game, but this was because we wanted to push her imagination. We also decided to try not to lie to her about it throughout her early years. For us, we wanted her to imagine a world where magical things could and do exist. But we have been struggling against the drive of capitalism. After all, Christmas is mostly a celebration of capitalism.

In our house, we do not celebrate it under Christianity, we celebrate it as a holiday of family and togetherness. That’s what Christmas is to us. We love on each other deeply, tell stories, have a big meal together, laugh, hangout and be with one another all while taking moments to remember those that walk among the ancestors.

But, this year, my daughter remembers how many gifts Santa gave her last year. When she said that she wanted more than one thing, I reminded her that Santa only brings one or two things. She quickly rebutted that she got four presents last year. When I asked her what they were, she could only remember two. I remembered three. I still don’t remember the fourth. I suppose I could look it up on Amazon to see what I shipped on Dec. 22nd to appease my indecisive, last second decision making kid. However the point that I don’t remember, is the message I am working with.

I expect this year will be harder because we are trying to hold our ground, to fight back. Santa will bring two presents to each of our kids and not everything they have asked for.

She is very to the point and very intellectual. She is so smart that we hide the wrapping paper from Santa as best as we can to keep her from guessing. But I expect this year, the questions will come. We had a simple one last year, which ended in a beautiful moment.

We took her for a ride on the Polar Express. When we stopped at the “north pole” and were waiting for Santa to come onto the train, she asked me, “Will this be the real Santa or a person dressed up like Santa?”

A little shocked, I simply told her that we’d have to see. I quickly deducted that she got to this question because of her fear of the Easter bunny. A couple years before, the Easter bunny was visiting her daycare and she was distraught because she was scared of him. She didn’t want to go to school that day. So I told her there was nothing to be afraid of. That it was simply a person dressed up as the Easter bunny so they could have fun, that it wasn’t the real bunny. She still didn’t touch him that day, but she went to school.

So cue this moment, my truth wielding daughter in her brilliance, as Santa stepped onto the train. I hear her whisper, “It’s him, he’s really real.” My heart flipped over and over. I had a moment where I thought, “yes, I have not ruined her forever.” Her belief in magic was still possible.

She is such a practical kid and deducts everything around her. And she’s impatient, so if something doesn’t make sense, she simply ignores it. That’s actually how I think she viewed Santa until that very moment on that train. Before that, he was a creepy idea and against all that we taught her.

(As an aside, he totally is and that is a post to write in itself…sit on this stranger’s lap even if you don’t want to or he won’t know what you want for Christmas…too young to say no? then go ahead and cry and we’ll take pictures and laugh about it…yes, this stranger breaks into your house one night in the only non-locked entry point…sure he watches you even when you’re sleeping…this strange man gets to decide if you’re bad or good… Not to mention the rampant inequity that lies in the gift receiving process.)

But I digress, back to magic. My kid has trouble connecting with things she can’t comprehend, but she has a deep connection to wonder. So that moment in seeing Santa, was a moment of wonder for her. She bursts with amazement when something blows her little intellectual mind. And that Santa did that. Dressed to perfection, jolly, real beard, real smile, careful, cautious demeanor, he was it. I believed in that moment too.

And here’s where it got so much better. This Santa did not hug kids without their consent. He waited for their actions before making a move. He didn’t get in their face or take forced pictures. He instead stayed back if the kid needed it and he listened. When he got to us, she immediately freaked out. He was huge and his realness was overwhelming. He asked her her name and she buried her head. He then crouched down, stayed back with distance, smiled and said, “I’ll be back at the train station, so I can see you again if you want.” I honestly don’t remember his words exactly, but it was close to that. He didn’t touch her, ask her for a hug, or keep talking to her. He respected her space and allowed her to decide what was next.

Back at the train station, she wanted to meet him and was excited to do so. I wasn’t sure what she’d do when she saw him, but she leaped up onto his sleigh and his lap and smiled for a picture. In line, I reminded her that she didn’t have to sit on his lap, that she could stand in front or next to him, but she was so excited. His demeanor again was gentle and guided by her. I felt so grateful and so thankful for this Santa.

The problem we face now is that we can never see another Santa again or it will all be blown to pieces. Luckily that Santa lives in Rhode Island and it’s too far to go and see him again now.

But I do want her to believe in this magic, this wonder. I want to unwrap the capitalism from this holiday so she can experience the rawness of what it’s meant to be. For me, I was so lucky to have parents who understood me and my deep belief in wonder and magic and I want the same for my kids.

When I was about 2 or 3, I noticed that Santa used the same wrapping paper as my parents and I quickly asked about it. My Dad simply replied that Santa ran out, woke him up, and borrowed some. I couldn’t believe he had met Santa. See my Dad has an incredible imagination. His belief in the wonders of this world runs deep. So that moment was profound for me. Why would he lie when I knew he so deeply believed in things like Santa? For years, I told that story. Used it as a rebuttal for the other kids who told me I was silly for still believing.

Finally, when I was about 8 or 9, I was sitting on the couch one Sunday morning. My parents were reading the paper, each with a section in hand on the blue loveseat in the family room.

“Mom, is Santa really real?” I asked aloud.

They were ready. My Mom got up and brought back a piece to read. It was the letter “Dear Virginia” and it was printed in the Washington Post magazine. I read it and I knew, and I also got why they did it. Why they let me believe, why they pushed me to believe. That moment was pivotal for me. It could have happened differently, putting my love for wonder, magic into question. But they knew me and thought about what I needed when that time came. So, they were careful. I learned in that moment what I already knew, that there was no weird man who came down our chimney. I knew that they had crafted our experiences to bring us joy, love, and laughter. I knew that they wanted me to believe, have faith in the act of showing love and giving to others. To know that family time, the fun, the wonder is what is was all about.

We are working towards that in our home. I expect this year will be tough. And, I expect my daughter will learn the truth early, as her smarts, her view of this world will quickly help her realize the facts. But, I want us to experience the wonder. I want us to break free from the capitalism, the greed, and the made up version of a Santa who doesn’t seem to value privacy or consent. As we live from far from our families, I want November to come and excitement to pour from her body because it means it’s the season where we spend deep loving time with our families, and we have fun gifting others because we want them to know we love them and that we have thought of them. I want this kid to experience all of the wonders of this world, even though sometimes it toes the line of what we’re working against.

Update – Boys will be boys?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post called “Boys will be boys?” that you can check out here. It was a story that my five year old daughter told me about how she was treated on the playground by an older boy. It sparked some serious concern by many friends and family. And even some criticism of how I handled it, or at least how I handled it according to the post.

Regardless, it was a real life incident that we faced as parents and a tough one. I thought it only right to share what happened next and what we did choose to do as parents.

When speaking with our daughter, it was apparent she knew that what happened was not okay. I wanted to be very careful in how I responded even though my insides were screaming and my skin was burning from anger. I worked to re-ground myself over and over as I knew this moment mattered. If I acted angry, she might see my response as extremely different than her own – her own navigation of right and wrong and her own lack of anger – and I could cause her to not tell me these stories again for fear of the anger. Anger can be confusing for kids as they do not understand why we feel so angry. For them, it’s simple – cause and effect. My extreme anger could have been translated as you told me this thing and now I’m upset that you told me.

For her, what happened was confusing, not angering. So I took a lot of deep breaths, and asked questions. It was what kept me from giving feeling, while instead gathering how she felt, what happened, and what she wanted to do next.

At bedtime, I told her that I thought it would be a good idea to tell her dad what happened. She didn’t really want to, but I said he would want to know. I gave her the option that I could tell him or she could. She chose to tell him.

My radical co-parent responded much in the same way I did. When he walked in to sit next to me, he looked at me and said something to the line of “I hate that kid.” Of course he did, like me, as an adult we understand the context. But with her, he asked questions and took a different route. He helped her plan what to do next time it happened. They spoke about her saying no very loudly so the other kid would definitely hear it, as would the nearby adults.

When I spoke with her, she didn’t want me to talk to the kid’s parents or to the school group.

That night, my partner and I talked and we decided that this was too great of a risk not to. Not necessarily a great risk to her right now, but of great risk to both kids involved for their futures. And of great risk to the after-school group.

I have shared in prior posts that I was a victim of abuse by classmates in elementary school. Teacher and adults never knew until we told them. It’s not their fault, they can’t have eyes everywhere. And as an adult, I think they could have handled it better. So this time, I knew I owed it to the school group to tell them and to ask for what I wanted.

This was guided from some help of a friend who does therapy work with families and youth. Our concerns were validated in that this had the potential to turn into something worse and that this was simply a case of boundaries. By setting the line for them now, and not allowing the Boys will be Boys narrative, we were preventing further negative interactions between the two, and providing important parenting to both kids.

So we ultimately decided to call the playgroup. I told our daughter that morning, and she was upset with me. She told me that she didn’t want me to do it. And I told her, that this is a time where as a parent I have to make some decisions that might be different. And that in this case, it was important that the playgroup knew to keep her safe and to teach the other kid how to play safe. She let it go pretty quickly and turned her focus to checking in on her friend whom she had been worried about being at the playgroup without her.

That morning I called and spoke to the playgroup director. I said what happened, my concerns and what I wanted to see happen. My asks were that the kid and his parents were told and that the group worked to keep an eye on boundaries during play. She took it very seriously, validated my concerns and said that would happen. I’ll never know if that follow through actually happened as I haven’t asked. But I believe it did and I believe that this group did it well.

Today, my daughter and this kid still play. See, this is where it was so confusing for her. She liked playing with him and couldn’t figure out why the played had turned into something she didn’t like. As a five year, she needed some back-up in helping him to see it was not ok. Remember, she told him no over and over. And she told the adults, twice. But it kept happening. Today, however, they play and she reports that he plays nicely and they have fun, every time. He hasn’t tried to kiss her again, or force others on her. They still play “dying” but no one kills anyone anymore.

I had not shared this before, but once she told me a kid was bothering her in school and I asked if she told someone. She said yes, and they didn’t do anything. She also once was at a birthday party and another kid was spitting on her. She told my partner and he asked them all to stop but the other kid didn’t. She has brought this up before, when prepped to tell an adult, and said that she has done that before and they didn’t help.

We cannot be the adults that don’t help. I had to get over my nerves of calling the school group, the potential of making another parent mad with an accusation, and just do it. We as adults can sort out our mess and misunderstandings, but our kids need to know we’re there. We need to do check-ins and then be there, make the tough choices while also following their guidance. These two kids moved past something harmful and are friends, they’ve learned and forgiven. If anything came of this, it’s my own ability to stay grounded, learn, and forgive. And a reminder of the resiliency in these growing bodies, a reminder to uplift my own as a parent.

Bodily autonomy

Bodily autonomy…this has been quite the feat with my 5 year old. I am constantly worried about her body and ensuring that she owns it and others respect it. This seems to be going well. We respect her “no” and help guide her when she encounters others and it’s clear she understands how important this is. For her. But we haven’t successfully taught her the same of others.

She still hugs her friends or takes their hands without asking. She does it out of love and comfort, but we want her to know that intention and impact do not necessarily correlate, nor are they one and the same.

Her learning of this is most obvious with my partner. When she’s wound up or pushing limits she gets grabby. She hangs on his legs, hugs him tight, climbs on him, etc. And he regularly asks her to stop. She ignores this request repeatedly until it blows up and he prys her off of him and he leaves the room to scream into a pillow or something of the sort.

The other night she hurt him and he was mad. While he was “taking space” as he was deserving, I talked with her more about this.

“Why do you think daddy is upset?

“I don’t know.”

“Did you check in with him?”

She ran to the door, I heard some mumbles and then she returned.

“He’s still mad,” she said.

She got teary eyed because I could tell she was sure she was supposed to be upset, but I could also see that she was struggling understanding the why.

I asked her, “do you like it when people touch you when you say not to.

She replied, “no.”

I said bluntly, “look kid, there are people in this world who hurt other people by touching them when they don’t want to be touched. I do not want you to be one of those people.”

She looked at me and said that she just wanted to apologize . So she headed out and tried again, this time with success.

I’ve been thinking about this moment a lot. My mind keeps asking, how did we miss this? Two things come to mind. As a person who has been touched by other people when not wanting to be touched, I likely hold a history in my body different than my partner’s. I wonder if my energy holds a stronger line than his. Secondly, and most importantly, I am wondering how well he and I model this for her. Today and moving forward, my partner and I are paying attention to how we ask for consent before touch.

I’m also thinking about how to do it with the baby. I see her give him big hugs as his little body struggles to push her off sometimes. She’s missing the cues and I know I need to do more for her. For us.

“Baby, it’s cold outside”…so I’m going to wear a hat

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.