Children Are Not Property: Respecting the Agency of Young Black Girls

by Kinsey Clarke

I remember feeling it: that sense of dread when family functions were rapidly approaching and I knew I would have to come into physical contact with people I did not want to touch me. It was inevitable. The ever-grabbing hands of aunties who grabbed your wrist and demanded that you “give them some sugar” because they hadn’t seen you in a while. The grown male cousins who hugged you a little too long for comfort. This is an irritating exchange as an adult at best, but as a child your personal space is deemed open and accessible to anyone who wants to pinch your little cheeks. All the while, you’re just a child trying to be left alone.

Let’s get something straight: Your children are not your property. You do not own them. With that being said, stop pushing them to have physical contact with people when they don’t want to be touched. A child who is old enough to say no is a child who wants their boundaries respected. Take this video, for instance, where the small child is very direct in what he does. Yes, the baby is adorable in his actions, but this does not negate the fact that he does not want anyone’s tickles. Also notice how the adult figure in the back stopped tickling. It’s really that easy.

Parents, I need you to ask yourselves: Why is it so important that Cousin Fanny be given a kiss? You both can see that a child is clearly traumatized, but you prioritize your feelings of entitlement over their bodily autonomy. Adults often—and unapologetically—ignore the obvious unease of their children and force them to “be nice.” Young black girls are usually the children who have to deal with this. By teaching our daughters early in life that they have to hug or kiss someone they don’t want to have contact with, we are enforcing that their “no” is not a valid response and that their personal space is not respected. We are teaching them that their consent does not matter. And it absolutely does.

During my adolescence, my family would always sit next to this one particular older woman in church who took it upon herself to single me out and hug me after service. Her motives were not insidious in any way, but my body language clearly showed my reluctance to being touched by someone I was uncomfortable with. One Sunday, as she approached me, I violently flinched away from her and sternly said, “No.” Needless to say, my parents were embarrassed and made me apologize and hug the woman the following week. The lecture that followed was that I had no reason to be rude to the woman, but all I could think about was how that woman had no reason to be touching me. It seemed as though my parents were the ones who held my consent, not me. Even though it was my body, my parents “owned” my autonomy and my response.

In scolding young girls when we don’t want to be bothered, you are enforcing that her voice does not matter and that her body is not hers. This silencing is an act of violence. As an adult, you are not entitled to a child’s space. They do not owe you kisses, or hugs, or any other physical contact.

It’s sad that this conversation even has to be had, but many will still argue that making children embrace those they are not comfortable with is “just a pleasantry” or “simply being polite.” Here’s the thing: Are you, as an adult, made to hug and kiss people you don’t want in your face? Surely you remember the days of Aunt Suzie crushing your lungs with aggressive, strong-armed hugs and grabbing your cheek to plant puckered-lip kisses, but you want to subject your children to that? It’s a clear overstepping of boundaries; and as a result, you are teaching young girls that they are not extended any. You’re an adult, which means you know what it’s like to have been a child in that same social situation.

Please, listen to your children. Before you insist upon wrapping them up in a big hug, try asking the child first. If they say yes, proceed. But if they say no, respect their wishes and their space. This is how we teach young children—especially young girls—that they own their bodies, that others must respect their decisions around their bodies, and that their consent is valuable. We need these healthy conversations in order to remind ourselves that children are not property, but that they are very much people too, and that their feelings are valid.

Photo: Shutterstock

Kinsey Clarke is a senior at Michigan State University. She enjoys aerial silks and solo trapeze in her spare time. You can follow her personal Twitter account here.

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