Care and Feeding

I’m Deeply Unsettled by a Stranger’s Interaction With My Daughter at the Museum

Young girl.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Hakase_/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am the mother of a very outgoing and charming 2-and-a-half-year-old girl. People often tell me she brightens their day with her warm and caring disposition. I adore her personality and want to continue to foster her open nature. However, I also want to teach her healthy boundary setting, particularly when it comes to stranger danger. I am struggling right now with the realization that the world at large is not quite aligned with what I imagined to be obvious boundaries—for example, don’t touch a child or anyone you don’t know. Recently, we were at the museum of natural history when a stranger interacted with her in a manner that I found to be very concerning.

My daughter was looking at the taxidermied cheetahs when the man squatting next to her reached out and put his hand over hers. He then proceeded to tickle her stomach. I felt extremely uncomfortable with this but froze for a moment thinking I was overreacting. I then listened to my gut, took her hand, and moved her along. My daughter seemed fine with the whole interaction, and maybe the man was just lost in the magic of taxidermied cats, but it really disturbed me that he would assume it was acceptable to touch a child in such an intimate way because A) pandemic and B) HE DOESN’T KNOW US. I’m not even sure if he noticed me standing a few feet behind her, but he certainly did not acknowledge me or look to see if this was OK, which is all the more disturbing.

My dear friend who was with us validated my feelings and supported me in having a discussion about it afterward with my daughter. I explained that when someone touches us we can always say “Get back! I need my space!” which is what we say at the playground if someone is in her space. I have since also been trying to explain to her the difference between family/friends and strangers and how we interact differently with each. I must admit I feel ashamed of not saying anything directly to this man. It triggers in me the same shame I’ve felt throughout my life when I am on the receiving end of an unwanted touch and don’t stand up for myself. I want to be stronger for my daughter and show her that she doesn’t have to tolerate someone violating her space. However, I also don’t want to appear “hysterical” in my reaction.

What could I have said or done differently toward this man? I’m sure similar incidents will occur again and I want to be prepared. How can I also continue to teach my daughter about boundaries without imparting any unnecessary fear and anxiety? I want her to be strong but also feel as free as she can to explore the world.

—Building Better Boundaries

Dear Building Better Boundaries,

While I can relate to the shame you have felt when you did not stand up for yourself when receiving unwanted touch, that is ultimately NOT YOUR SHAME. Women are so often socialized to accommodate men, to be nice and polite even when our boundaries are crossed, and then to blame ourselves when their behavior is inappropriate. The person who should feel ashamed is the person who is touching you, or in this case your daughter, without permission.

That said, I do think it’s important that we work on finding our voices in these kinds of situations, so that we can model a new way of being for our children of any gender. It’s natural to freeze in the moment, so having a set of pre-prepared responses can make it easier to get the words out. It can be as simple as, “Please don’t touch.” If you feel like you need to give more explanation than that (you don’t), you can blame germs—after all, little kids sometimes put their hands in their mouths, so who wants a germy stranger touching them? Whatever you choose to say, keep your tone neutral and calm, but speak firmly and repeat as many times as necessary to get the person to stop the unwanted touching. And try doing the same for yourself, whether your daughter is watching or not—the more you can practice setting this kind of boundary, the easier it will come.

There are lots of resources on teaching bodily autonomy to children even at your daughter’s age, which you have already started to do with your discussions. You can also start asking your child’s permission before giving hugs or kisses and teaching them to ask permission before touching other children. Teach her the correct names for her body parts, so that she has the language to express herself if she ever needs to share something that happened, and teach her which ones are private and should only be seen or touched by a parent or doctor doing an exam. And tell her that it’s always OK to say “no,” when she feels uncomfortable, even to adults. She is in charge of her own body, and only she gets to decide who is allowed to touch her.


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