Be a good girl, I heard over and over, until it became imprinted like a needle laying lyrics on vinyl. Be well-behaved and self-disciplined; be seen and not heard, and do as you’re told and don’t tell tales. When a child strayed from these expectations, it was normal for loud voices and raised hands to knock us back to where we belonged. Some children learned respect. Others learned submission. I learned to feel perpetually afraid.
At the time, I’m sure adults thought they were doing their best for us. I remember sitting on the gym floor at school to watch a series of public service films about the dangers of life all around us. I sat cross-legged, scared that I might vomit, while horror after horror was portrayed: a child drank farm chemicals and screamed while they died; another child fell into a slurry pit where they suffocated; a third child played on a tractor and got run over; a group of children ran across a railway line where one child’s foot got stuck and a speeding train hit them.
We learned that cars can spread a distracted child like jam and strangers might offer candy to steal us away, but at no point were we given the vocabulary to protect ourselves from people who want to hurt us, or an understanding that danger might come from people we know. Instead, we were commanded to kiss our relatives and let whiskered old grandparents hug us too tightly. I grew up with no sense of autonomy or knowledge of how to defend myself against anything other than farm chemicals, slurry pits, tractors, railway lines, fast cars and strangers offering chocolate. Never did it occur to me that known and trusted adults could be abusive. Never did it occur to me that I could talk to a safe person. Adults who should have protected me disempowered me instead, and what nobody seemed to understand is that a disempowered child is a vulnerable child.
Fortunately, times are changing, though we still have a long way to go. It’s imperative that our children understand autonomy and realize their bodies belong to themselves and nobody else. Each time we force a child to hug or kiss a relative, we’re teaching them to prioritize other people’s wants and needs over their own. We’re invalidating their feelings and forcing submission. We’re teaching them that their intuition is wrong. Rather than condemn a child for expressing yucky feelings and not wanting to kiss Grandma, congratulate his willingness to say no and support both adult and child to celebrate their love in a way that feels comfortable.