A Note From Noah

What can we force children to do? How much power do we have as parents over our children, and what are appropriate ways to express that power?
My Note this week will touch on these questions, first through a conversation exploding in recent weeks about young girls’ consent, and then through doctoral research I am conducting this year (grab a snack and stay with me, it’s a bit lengthy).
Girl Scouts of America threw themselves into this debate last month when they posted an article titled “Reminder: She Doesn’t Owe Anyone A Hug, Not Even at the Holidays”. Seemingly timed to open up the conversation for parents leading into Thanksgiving and Christmas, GSA argues that girls should be given opportunities to exercise the muscle of consent from a young age, so that “later in life” they do not feel that they “owe” physical affection to anyone.  Their stance mirrored that of a child-safety group CAPS Hauraki who ran a similar campaign in New Zealand last year, centered on an image of a young child overlaid with the words, “I am 5. My body is my body. Don’t force me to kiss or hug. I am learning about consent and your support on this will help me keep myself safe for the rest of my life.” Both campaigns have generated heartfelt responses, some championing this as an essential pivot for parenting strategies to provide a safer future for women (in Parents Magazine), and some lambasting this as a perversion of familial intimacy (in NY Post, written by JCC nursery alum mom Karol!) (HuffPost has a mostly-neutral review of recent media coverage of the topic as well).
Predating both campaigns, and offering a different perspective Mayim Bialik wrote on the subject in Kveller four years ago, outlining her stance on this with her own children: “Forcing (even gently) children to kiss people they don’t want to indicates to children that they don’t know their own sense of safety, comfort, their bodies, and what to do with them.” Bialik also, importantly, offers caveats throughout her article – this strategy works for her, with her children, she is not suggesting her ideas are the right match for all families – something I would eagerly remind you about my own writing and ideas as well.
As you may surmise from my opening questions, my orientation on the topic is more informed by the notion of power in relationships between adults and children, and less about the sexual implications of physical intimacy at a young age (though the two cannot simply be dichotomously split). When viewed through the lens of power, I agree with GSA and CAPS Hauraki – but not because children are training to be adults, learning consent now so they can use it later in life in meaningful situations. While I do appreciate and mostly agree with their assertions, my stance is that children should not be forced by adults to hug or kiss other adults because already, in the present, children are individuals who bring with them rights, power, and competencies to their human interactions – in other words, they have agency.
When viewed through the lens of power rather than sexuality (again, difficult to separate the two at times, but for conversation’s sake, allow me to separate them), the argument that children deserve to be listened to broadens from young girls’ interactions with older relatives and into how we as adults understand our powered relationships with children.
This notion is at the core of the dissertation research that I am conducting this year. I am partnering with a 2.5 year old child (not at JCC) to explore her agency and voice as she begins school for the first time (over the course of nine months, I am spending 27 four-hour observation periods with her, throughout all areas of her week, both at home and school). As I spend time with her, I am looking for ways in which adults extend their power into her world, imperialistically precluding her agency in favor of their expectations (thus the connection to the Girl Scouts of America article).
As I explore her agency I am compelled to earn her consent, instead of only accept her parents’ consent for her (who have, needless to say, also consented). I follow her verbal and non-verbal signals that show me she understands and accepts my presence – and I back off when she shows her displeasure (which, thankfully, has been very limited – mostly limited to when she is pooping or crying!). It does not take a verbal child to offer, or revoke, consent. It takes adults well-attuned to the child, deeply “listening” to the signals the child is giving.
What I have learned from the research is that young children’s notions of what they want out of interpersonal interactions should not be dismissed or diminished; they should be understood as authentic, agentive expressions. Children, even very young children, engage in powerful, agentive acts that are so often completely missed by adults. I believe that this results from a number of factors – the incompatibility of children’s expressive capacities and adults’ receptive capacities (we insist on “use your words” when children are much better-versed in using their bodies), our strong desire to “raise” children to be like us (leading us to extend control into their lives), and the hubris we adopt as adults when looking at children (“How could her idea be better than mine? I’m her parent!”…“We need to be on time, we can’t stop to collect leaves right now”).
Eileen Johnson, in “The Children’s Bill of Emotional Rights”, claims that “children are [an] unheard minority, a group whose voice is seldom listened to”. Seeing children in this light begins to shift our orientation around power, agency, voice, and consent in our interactions with young children, perhaps allowing us to understand that children are not always in need of adult guidance, correction, and intervention.
While the counter-argument to this is, most typically, “Yea but Noah – children need help! They are dependent on adults!”, through my research-lens I have begun to see just how pervasive adult imperialism into children’s lives is. We take children’s dependency on us (which is a biological reality, don’t get me wrong) and over-exaggerate it into nearly every corner of their life. We have crafted a paradigm in which adults are always right, and the child’s agency is (nearly always) ignored. I am not arguing for a culture in which children enjoy the same power as adults – but I am arguing for adults to listen more carefully to the signals children are giving them.
Every morning, I stand in the doorway to the school, greeting each child and adult to school. It is one of my absolute favorite parts of my job – helping children start their day at school with a smile and a friendly face. And every day, at least several children are hesitant to say “Hi” or “Good morning” in return. To respect the child’s agency, I am interested in shifting our culture to one in which those children are not compelled to respond in an adult fashion, but rather are able to watch their adults provide model behavior. In essence, I am asking you to greet me how you want your child to, rather than mandate that they preform accordingly on the spot. My job is to provide a warm, safe entry for them to school – and that begins with me greeting them. I am fearful that if they are required to respond in a particular fashion, the intention of the greeting (warmth, safety, friendliness) is diminished in the face of adult imperialism – extending our control into their lives.
I will continue to explore this topic in next week’s Note, providing more day-to-day examples of where I see imperialism in children’s lives and how as adults we can understand and respond to this idea.  I would love to hear your thoughts, as I imagine reactions to this will run a wide range. Where do you see power and agency in your relationship with your children? When and how do you listen to their voice? What role does a child’s consent play in her adult-relationships?
Shabbat shalom,