Another Toddler Hugged my Daughter at the Playground: Why I Didn't Think it Was Cute.
After my Stroller Strides class today, I took my daughter to play on the playground, The other kids she normally plays with after class weren't staying, but I had promised her some time there before we went home. While rocking her baby brother in the stroller, I was so happy to look up and see her playing with another group of children. She looked like she was having a wonderful time while they were all taking turns chasing each other around, climbing and crawling through the tunnels. I noticed a little girl about 16-18 months old hugging my daughter. I try not to intervene too much while my daughter is playing because I want her to know I trust her and also foster her sense of independence as much as I can.
In watching my daughter's face, it wasn't clear how she was feeling about this little girl hugging her. I keep looking back on the situation and thinking "should I have intervened?" After all, it was a smaller child. I'm sure she did not have any malicious intent, and she probably just liked my daughter and wanted to give her hugs. After all, how often in our society do we tell children that hugs are a wonderful way to show someone you like them?
A few minutes later, my daughter walked over to me. There were tears in her eyes, and she made an expression that has broken my heart repeatedly since this happened today. "A girl touched me. Girl touched me." She looked very upset and a little confused.
"Did that little girl hug you?"
"Yes," she answered quickly.
"Did that scare you?"
"Yes. Girl hugged me. I didn't like it." She was adamant.
So, I think it might be some parents' gut reaction in this moment to tell their daughter, "oh it's okay. She was just a baby. She didn't understand." I did not do that, nor should you. In the moment, I was trying to be very cognizant of what lesson I would be teaching her if I focused at all on the little girl's motives. I don't want her to think there is any reason she should allow someone to touch her if she doesn't want to be touched. Not if they are younger. Not if they don't understand. Not if they don't mean it. Not if they don't seem threatening. Saying "don't worry about it, she was just a baby" could convey the message that my daughter does not have control over her own body in certain situations. It would also minimize my daughter's feelings as she was obviously very upset.
We have never made her hug relatives unless she wants to hug them. We have always tried to reinforce (as much as we can to a two year old) that she has body autonomy. We discussed her saying, "don't touch me!" loudly if anyone touches her in a way she doesn't like. She knows that the next step is to run away to get Mommy or Daddy or her Grandparents. Honestly, I feel like a failure for not immediately recognizing how my daughter was feeling in this situation today.
She was upset. So, I carried her back to the car, and we had a most remarkable conversation. She explained why she did not like the hug with exceptional insight for a two year old. I gently tried to get her talking about good touches and bad touches. How did the little girl hugging her make her feel? ("Bad. I didn't like it. I don't know her, mommy.") We talked about how we don't touch strangers, and that strangers shouldn't touch us. It was interesting to me that this came up because a little girl at the playground hugged her. It wasn't a villainous-looking boogey man stranger. It was a little toddler girl barely beyond being a baby, who I'm sure did not mean anything by her behavior except that she wanted to show my daughter some affection. I realized that I had to take a hard line. Motives do not matter. My daughter was absolutely right to come directly over to me and tell me that someone touched her in a way she didn't like. I am very proud of her.
What an amazingly important lesson for me and my daughter! I thought about the statistics about children who are touched inappropriately, and how it isn't usually a stranger targeting at random. It might be someone who seems nonthreatening or familiar like a person at church or a brother of a friend or a dad of a friend. I will always remember her vulnerable, tragic expression and those tears in her eyes. "I didn't like it," she had said.
(Later at home) "Alright, sweetheart. What do you do if anyone touches you in a way you don't like?"
"DON'T TOUCH ME!!!" (yelled then smiled).