I've mentioned before that I work in a preschool. It's incredibly fun and I love my specialized focus of teaching my 3-5 year olds the necessary literacy skills they'll need to be successful readers in kindergarten (Psst: If you live in Minnesota, love working with and teaching kids, and need a short-term [1-2 years] job for next school year, email me and I'll give you more information about my non-profit).
However, once I'm with my kids, it's like my body is not my own anymore. More specifically, my lap for sitting, my hands for holding and rarely my hair for pulling. This is usually the extent of it, but occasionally kids will ask me what my breasts are or touch my butt from behind without notice. It usually doesn't bother me (except the one time when a kid had messy hands from lunch and wiped them all over the back of my jeans).
Today while reading The Lorax, one of my students began putting her hands near my collarbone, resting them on my skin for a moment then moving them to my other side. She said she was checking for my heartbeat. Another boy stuck his hand out and put it squarely on my breasts, saying, "No, this is where her heartbeat is." I suggested they try checking for their own heartbeat underneath their chins, modeling how to do it. His touch obviously wasn't sexual, but there's still something jarring about being touched, especially in some areas, without notice or consent. I don't want to stigmatize a particular area of their bodies as sexual, dirty, shameful or something they shouldn't be touching without the larger context and conversations of age-appropriate bodily education.* But they know the rules - hands to yourself, you must ask a friend first before touching, and you have to listen when a friend says no.
Awhile back we got a new girl in the class. She had no troubles adjusting to the class and got along well with the other children. On her first day, one of the boys suggested they be boyfriend and girlfriend. They held hands a bit during story time (with several warnings about the hands to yourself rule) and he tried to kiss her on the cheek after. She clearly didn't like this and I had to tell him to respect her no, even if he didn't like it. The class rules say that we have to listen to everyone's no, but I felt like I should have included that a girl's no must especially be listened to. It turns out she didn't even want to be his "girlfriend," but felt a little pressured. I told her that it's ok to say no if you don't want something. Again - these are 4 year olds.
But it must be said early and often if the message is to be understood.
Sometimes I wonder how I would do my job if I had difficulties with being touched without asking or were triggered by such actions.
Yet at the same time, I have to consider my own actions. Sometimes I touch kids without expressly asking. In the case of some kids, it helps if I rub their back during storytime. They listen better; they keep their hands to themselves, and I imagine it makes them feel loved. At first I finished that sentence with safe - I imagine it makes them feel safe- but I don't think I can say that for all kids. We want preschool to be a safe enviornment and actively work to destress kids in order to make them feel comfortable enough to learn. Some kids like having their back rubbed or scratched and I suppose I just think most kids like it.
And then I read Rebecca from City of Ladies and Thomas from Yes Means Yes** and step back to evaluate my own actions. Am I touching kids who would rather I not touch them? Perhaps. There are some things I'm very explicit about - I always ask a child if they would like to give me a hug and accept the occasional "no." I don't take pictures of children without their consent. But it seems that I must adjust my actions to include all touching if I am truly to respect their own decisions about their bodies.
It only takes a quick "Can I rub your back?" and all bases are covered. How many difficulties in this world would be avoided if only we checked in and made sure we had consent first?
*Since this came up a bit in one of my prior posts about preschool children and the language they use to describe their bodies, I'll state this clearly: I believe in age appropriate bodily education and will implement this in the classroom. That doesn't mean, as one anonymous commenter suggested, "feminists teaching [preschool children] about their bodies or sexuality." Age appropriate bodily education includes proper, anatomical names for body parts (arms, legs, brain, arm bones, vagina, penis, toes, etc) and recognizing what their bodies are telling them (hunger, sickness, anger, happiness). I'm not indoctrinating kids into feminism when I say that I use age appropriate bodily education; I'm teaching them that sometimes that funny feeling in their stomach means they're hungry, angry, sick or have to poop.
**My own thinking on the topic of children and bodily respect has been influenced by Thomas' post "If She's Not Having Fun You Have To Stop." It has been useful in shaping the way I interact and help police my student's actions.