So much of the past 15 months of new motherhood have been spent protecting my child. From quarantining to adopting safety routines in public spaces, boundary setting has become an art. For me, however, it has been less about keeping my child from touching, mouthing, and exploring the bacteria of public spaces and more about keeping adult hands off my child. Yes, as horrific as this sounds.
My one-year-old son is cute. (Says every mother.)
He is friendly and has a piercing stare coupled with a warm smile. He says “hi” to just about everyone. Time and time again strangers have taken this as an invitation to get up close and personal; extending a hand, asking for a high five, and even picking up and offering a dropped toy. Each time I have had to run interference, politely correct, and/or quickly move on. Each encounter has left me enraged, playing the scenario over again and wondering if I responded appropriately.
Here’s an example.
After leaving the checkout line at the grocery store last week, a cashier followed me outside to gather carts, all the while trying to engage my son. When she saw me holding his hand and carrying bags with the other, she took the liberty of holding his other hand in an attempt to help me. I cringed.
Grocery stores are Petri dishes.
The last thing I want is for a person who works in a high traffic public setting to touch my son’s hand. I understood that her gesture was well-intentioned, but I didn’t understand why she couldn’t ask for permission first. I thanked her for her effort (my first mistake) which then led to her offering to hold my son while I cooled down the car. I told her that we were fine and at that same moment, while I loaded the car, she picked him up. I immediately grabbed him and told her to have a nice day. I left upset with myself for even letting her get that close to him.
I’ll never understand the audacity that strangers have to engage in physical contact with babies and young children with who they are unfamiliar. I would never touch a baby that I didn’t have a relationship with, and certainly not without getting the okay from the parent first. This upsets me even more as the utter disregard on display for the respect of brown baby bodies is rooted in a much larger problematic historical narrative.
Be Firm & Diligent
The bottom line is that I’ve come to realize that I must be firm and diligent in my efforts to model boundaries for my child, ensuring that he knows he has agency over his own body and physical interactions with others. And, yes, these lessons begin now. At age one. There is no room for politeness when it comes to his safety and well-being. If that means I have to slap away a stranger’s hand or even publicly humiliate someone who thinks that it is okay to touch my son’s hair, then so be it.
The uneasiness that this has created for me when venturing out into public spaces has led me to develop some personal guidance: an unwavering list of affirmations to remember each time a stranger decides that my son’s inviting smile gives them license to treat him like a petting zoo.
- I will be firm and direct in stating that myself and my child do not welcome physical contact from strangers. “Please do not invade my child’s personal space. I am trying to keep him safe and model boundaries for him.”
- Allow my child to determine for himself who he waves and/or says hi to. No need to demand this of him, nor encourage it. He is not out in public for anyone’s entertainment.
- If a stranger insists on disregarding my request, don’t hesitate to be aggressive. A woman at a restaurant once left her table, approached ours, and repeatedly insisted that my son give her a high five as I motioned for her to leave us alone. I tried to exercise grace as she clearly had too much to drink. But that is neither here nor there. As a mother, I still reserve the right to tackle you in an effort to protect my child.
- Do not engage in a conversation with anyone with whom I have to reinforce the above. I don’t need to defend the way I approach parenting or protecting my child.
We are still in the middle of a global health crisis, despite the number of maskless strangers who think it is acceptable to play peek-a-boo with my son in close proximity. But even if we weren’t, the same rules apply. Until my young king is able to advocate for himself, mama is responsible for protecting his body. And mama says, hands-off.