TW: rape, sexual assault, child pornography
Maggie is my oldest daughter and a teenager. Her body is her body. It’s the one thing in this world she any level of control over (minus puberty, of course). She is learning that she cannot control others. She can’t control things that have been done to her or happened to her in her past – the dog shitting on the floor, mean comments from others, sass from her siblings, or brutal feedback from a teacher she doesn’t like. She’s also learning that she cannot control me as her mother. She cannot make me change my rules, my mind, my words, or my ways.
So, the one thing in this world that she has control over is her body, and this includes her mind. She can control her thoughts, feelings, beliefs, choices, and reactions. She can also control her body – what it touches and what it doesn’t, how she uses it, and who uses it and for what purpose. Most importantly, she knows she how to use it for calming and peace as opposed to aggression and violence. Certainly there are exceptions— required medical procedures, for example. But, for the first time in her life, she is able to largely control what people do with her body and her physical image.
For 13 years, Maggie was oppressed and abused. From sexual exploitation for drug money by the the age of six to continued problems of inappropriate images of her being controlled by others oceans away, her body was not hers from her earliest memories. Instead, her body was a tool for the benefit of others: drug money, molestation, forced sexual satisfaction of men five times her age, and engagement in forced sexual acts by the male orphans who lived with her.
There was no safety, no protection, no one to teach her that her body was hers and hers alone. However, now that she is safe, she knows that her body can: grow, learn, explore, run, jump, climb, dance, twirl, swim, splash, build, create, and that she has the ability to calm it when angered. She uses her body to help keep her home clean, aid in the care of her pets, show love to her family, and volunteer to help others.
Given her past, touch that is uninvited or unexpected, or lasts a little too long, or squeezes that are a little too tight can all be a source of anxiety for her – for all four of my children, really – even from people they know well and love. As a mother, I typically allow my children to initiate physical contact with me, or I ask before I do so with them. I do this with all of my children, my daughters and sons, and also the ones who haven’t suffered the level of abuse that my oldest daughter has endured. I respect their bodies. I want others to respect their bodies. Because, even in this decade and in this country, boundaries are blurred, people are taken advantage of, hurt, and afraid.
I also do this so we can keep an open dialogue about bodies, what happens to them, how they can be used, and boundaries we can keep with regards to others touching our bodies. So, no, dear daughter, you absolutely do not have to stay with the boyfriend you found to be clingy – the one who didn’t respect you when you repeatedly asked him to stop holding your hand and hugging you constantly. In fact, I am a proud mama, because you know your boundaries, you know how to draw the line in the sand, and you realize that this might be a signal that other boundaries could be crossed without your permission later.
Also, no, dear Maggie, I am not upset with you for physically slugging a classmate who continued to touch your hair and face after you asked her three times nicely to stop and notified your teacher. I never want to promote violence, but I do want to promote boundaries. No one is allowed to touch you without your permission. I know you were called into your principal’s office about this issue, but I high-fived you at home that evening, and reminded you that no one, ever, is allowed to touch you in a way you don’t want to be touched.
My children have expressed to me on several occasions, especially recently as their English has improved, about feeling obligated to hug/touch family members, teachers, or friends. They know it is the social norm; therefore, they don’t want to hurt feelings. We, as their parents, had it written into our children’s accommodations this year that touch among all teachers and faculty would be limited to: high fives, fist bumps, secret handshakes, etc. (which is my practice as a teacher in general; I don’t go around hugging my students, even when I taught K-5). We were looked at like we were nuts when we made this request, and it has repeatedly been violated. This sends the message that, even though we and, more importantly, they have made certain requests known about their bodies, it doesn’t matter—the adult gets to decide what is done with their bodies. This is the same, very unhealthy, message sent to them before they came into our custody. Accommodations are legally binding; therefore, when violated, it reinforces to my children the same lesson they learned in their home country: laws don’t matter for some people.
So family, friends, teachers, administrators, friends- please don’t be offended if my children don’t want to touch you, or they want only a simple handshake/side hug instead of a full-on clobbering. Yes, we know you want to express your love that way, but for our children, it can often express something entirely different—control, by you as the adult. We are going to ask the same clause be written into the accommodations for this year, and ask that the adults in their lives really try to understand the rationale and comply with the accommodations.
Honestly, it is good practice as a professional, regardless of the student/accommodations, to not clobber with physical affection. Aside from the liability the teacher could face, it is simply unnecessary. I’ve spent much of my career in Title 1 public schools with very high-needs students. It is tempting, as a teacher of these populations, to see children as needing “saving” or a parental figure. I fully understand the temptation and have sometimes been lead astray by it.
However, in the case of my children, while their past is horrific, they have a functional family that provides these needs. They do not need a teacher to “save them” or provide anything else to them except an education and a safe space to learn. Additionally, after 13 years of working with children, at the end of the day, they just need teachers do one job — to be a teacher. Be an example, a role model, a moral guide, an educator- not a parent. Being a parent to students will ultimately interfere with boundaries, and will lead to compassion fatigue (don’t believe me? Look it up, teacher friends). As for my children, attentiveness to their safety, direct instruction, physical boundaries being not being crossed by a student or individual will always be preferable to me as a parent.