Tag Archives: children

Bodily autonomy: from birth


It interests me how much right people feel to cuddle a newborn.

The desire to is understandable – they’re cute. They have smooshy, squished up, grunty little faces and they do baby farts and their tiny fingers are delicate and amazing.

But when this desire to hold a newborn tips over into a feeling of entitlement to hold them, I think we see something very different.

When you get huffy or upset or pressure new parents about not “getting a hold” you’re really saying that this baby is an object that exists for your gratification, instead of a person with needs and rights that you holding them may not meet in that moment.

It seems radical to some people to say that babies are people with rights. They are, though. Their bodies aren’t consumables and they don’t exist for our entertainment and pleasure. In fact, babies have no duties to us. Nor do the parents of newborns. Their role is instead to keep their babies safe, and sometimes “safe” means comforted, calm, close to their parents, and not in the arms of strangers (and yes, close family are strangers to a tiny human who has been in the world not long at all).

At 31 weeks pregnant I know I will never feel guilty for denying people cuddles with my baby once they are born if I feel it isn’t right for them to be held by someone else at that time. As their guardian, it’ll be my job to work out when being held by someone other than me is appropriate or not.

As they age, it’s going to be part of a larger patchwork of teaching them that their bodies are their own; and nobody has a right to touch them if they don’t want to be touched. There’ll be no forced cuddles in our house.

Bodily autonomy from birth means that we are our own; and touch should always be invited, appropriate and optional. Until babies can show us – and they do, quickly – who they want to be held by, and who they don’t, it’s our job to watch them closely for cues, and make decisions based on them.


Use your words: why opening your mouth is better than keeping it closed.


For Ange.

Anyone who has worked with children has probably heard the phrase ‘use your words’.

I’ve been in many situations as an educator where children passively accept patent disrespect from a social equal – I’m not referring to bullying, but friendship disputes that are clearly that – and lash out by hitting, kicking or biting the person. Spitting, throwing something at them.

Sometimes the stimulus is them having a desired object or activity denied them by a peer or an adult (by accident or intent), or a range of other real or perceived slights that cause them to experience unpleasant emotions.

Some children respond with a bright flare of violence. Some respond with passive aggression, insults, undermining the source of their discomfort. Others react by totally removing themselves – mutely recoiling and passively whimpering, often allowing the situation they dislike to continue.

As educators, we teach children a core principle that I really believe in: use your words.

This is early communication education. Outside of bullying and abuse where clear power imbalances operate to silence the victim, this phrase places part of the responsibility for negotiating difficult circumstances back on the person feeling upset. It requires the person to open their mouth and say how they’re feeling, and to accept that they must at least attempt the first and most basic part of conflict resolution.

Another part of this is the ‘stop, go, tell’ technique we teach from infancy. Both techniques are largely to teach children to resort to everything except violence first. If someone pushes in line and you know you were first you say ‘STOP! I don’t like that! I don’t want you to push in. I was first.’ If that doesn’t work, you ‘go’ by walking away. And if pursued, you tell an ally and they intervene on your behalf.

What you don’t do is keep your words inside you, and go from zero to sixty by clocking someone over the head because they pushed in line. This is a work in progress, but I have seen it work – slowly and over years in a child’s life.

So how are you using your words?

This week has been a reminder for me of the power and importance of communicating our feelings in a timely fashion. A dear, funny, clever friend of mine has been dealt a stunning blind-siding blow in the form of an unexpected divorce ultimatum from an uncommunicative husband. It seems that it was old news to him, and new news to her.

How does something like this happen? While I’m sure there are subtleties and complexities I can neither comprehend nor convey – for in every divorce there are delicacies and mysteries of the human heart known only to those involved – it seems communication was a cornerstone fuckup.

He didn’t use his words until the very last moment, which far from being the moment of truth was simply the moment of coming out from his hiding place. So much was hidden and removed from discourse.

My first girlfriend didn’t use her words. For months she was a mystery to me, hiding under the cloak of ‘I’m just a private person’. Ten years later, I’ve learned that when people say they’re too ‘private’ to tell you important things about themselves and their thoughts – while still enjoying close proximity to your tender core – it just means they’re dysfunctional.

Now, this is not to say you can’t be private in general. Of course you can – who (besides me, apparently) wants to broadcast the entirety of their daily life to the world? However, if those closest to you have no idea how you feel and what’s going on in your skull, that’s a problem.

And it extends also to how and when you communicate. My partners tell me when they’re feeling something important, even if it may come out a little wrong. Otherwise that pent up feeling may escalate to conclusions you didn’t know you were approaching, hot feelings that could have quietened given an earlier intervention.

By using our words, we acknowledge our reality as interdependent beings who need to ebb and flow into those around us, to be known and to defuse bombs and to enjoy a richer quality of life.

And for the tall humans who have been somehow broken to the point where they think they have no choice but to hit, hurt, scream or run away without talking – get yourself into therapy. Your actions have consequences and if you can’t effectively use your words, you need to get help to find out how.

When we reach adulthood we can ask for consideration in finding our voice. However, we are no longer ten years old, no matter how much we may feel so, inside. A 37 year old man is old enough to know, especially when being told, that he needs to accumulate the tools to open his mouth better.

And if we need no other motivation, it is that brokenness feeds other brokenness. Opening our mouths and talking about how we feel is probably one of the more important steps in arresting that flow.


Talking to kids about Queer.


*please note that all names have been changed in this post, for privacy of the children concerned. Also note that I’m not using “gay, queer” etc interchangeably, nor am I trying to define them.

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Ally is eleven, and sidles up beside me. I’m sitting on the couch, making beaded bracelets with the girls (and one boy only, alas). We’re cosied up, chatting, reflecting on life as only a bunch of kids hanging out in OOSH care can. Justin Bieber is a hot topic, as is the fact that Joseph’s stylus for his DS is gone and we all know who stole it, don’t we. Hmmm.

We’re all stuck in this heat together – so why not craft and natter? These are my afternoons – conflict rich, delightful, learning heavy (on my behalf) and giving of an easily borne yoke of watching 70-odd growing bodies blossom with curiosity and dissent. I work in child care.

I’m also Queer.

Ally notices my bracelet. I made it yesterday at home. It says, in coloured letters, ‘Queer Femme’ and it stands out in an aesthetically provoking way on my wrist. Kinda pretty. Ally fingers it and asks “what does ‘queer’ mean?”

At first I’m surprised she doesn’t ask about the femme part, but I suppose the word must be so similarly spelt to ‘female’ that she doesn’t note it. Then I pause before answering. She’s the only child here who has said anything about it. I shrug, cock my head and say “it’s kind of like, when you feel different from most people. Queer is a word for all the different people.”

“Like who? What kind of different?” Ally asks me. She waits patiently. She’s a pretty cool kid, this one. Patient but hungry for answers and she thinks them over. I swear I can see my words going in like chunks of change, and while I’m not always sure what’ll vend, it’s usually intriguing and awesome.

“Well, like…like, some gay people like to call themselves Queer in a happy positive way, and some people who have boyfriends and girlfriends call themselves that and some people who get called a boy when they’re little but they grow up feeling like girls instead. And heaps of other things like that.”

“Oh. Ok, yeah. Cool. My mum has friends who are gay. And Violet has two Mums.” Ally nods towards Violet across the room, a curly-haired six year old playing with clay. She looks at my bracelet a while longer. “It’s really pretty. I like it.”

And then we go on in silence, smiling and collegial, no more said on the subject. I want to talk to her more about it – about how Queers own the word, about how to use it, about trans* folk in the community, about gender play, what ‘femme’ means and a million other things – but I don’t want to push, so I leave it, let it drop. I guess she’ll raise the topic when she wants to speak more on it and I’m ok with that.

You just need to plant the seed, not grow the whole damn tree yourself. Stick the seed in the ground, hang around for sprouting and hope to hell some other adults will come by with watering cans later.

The next day I posted a question to Facebook, curious to see what other queers and caregivers would think about talking to kids about Queerness, and all the manifestations of it in our community (though not everyone GLBTIQA identifies within the community or with the Q word).

There were a variety of reactions. The one I naively didn’t expect was from my father (and then my mother, who called me to argue at length on the point. I feel sorry for the people riding the 418 bus that morning. Sorry guys…). His point was that you should avoid the matter altogether.

My parents were, primarily, concerned that I keep my job. Fair enough, they’ve seen me in and out of work. I’m not that worried – I have two jobs and my childcare position is not the one that pays the bulk of my bills, so whoa there, worry horse.

My centre is also situated in the inner west, has many GL (gay and lesbian) staff who are openly out, and progressive(ish) management. A couple of our kids have same sex parents, and a range of backgrounds. We have one kid who is gender-fluid.

There’s no guarantee that I’m safe from a queerphobic kneejerk by a parent – but it is a calculated risk I gladly take as a form of honesty, decency in my role as an agent in childhood development and of course, activism.

Are they right though? Are carers and education providers at risk from public backlash if they speak to kids in an upfront way – hell, any perceivable way – about Queerness, or in a more focused example, gender and sexuality?

Yes. They really are. Move outside of the inner west of Sydney and your odds of being cast as an agent of diabolical political incision into the delicate consciousness of childhood is likely. Predictable even. For many, childhood is a precious, fixed, traditional state – which, by most adult renderings, is nothing like what kids actually experience.

In May of 2006, an article appeared in the Australian newspaper The Daily Telegraph – reknowned for being a conservative and right wing source of ‘news’. The article told of how Tillman’s Park Care Centre, based in Queer-heavy ‘burb Marrickville, had designed a curriculum that was friendly to gays, lesbians, bisexual, trangendered folk, and intersex people. Most notable was their use of ‘Learn To Include’ books.

Marrickville Mayor at the time, Sam Byrne, was not backward about coming forward in supporting the programme. Far from being a passive, ‘sunshine and puppies’ curriculum, it sought to take head-on already developed notions about GLBTI people and change them. The word ‘challenge’ was used.

“At Marrickville we believe in offering children and families an inclusive program based on social justice,” he told The Saturday Daily Telegraph.

Not only was he slammed, the centre was accused of ‘brainwashing’ children. Andrew Stoner, National Party leader at the time, said that the decision to teach the curriculum was ‘crazy’ and that children “that young have no concept of these issues of sexuality”.

“Whether it is heterosexual sex or homosexual sex, it is the choice for parents to talk about it with their children – not for an institution to start some political correct campaign.”

Wow, those words are sounding pretty familiar. Filter them a little, and they sound like the freaked out words of older educators and policy makers, inured to self-censorship and afraid to even begin to grasp the sides of their boat to rock it any more.

In Sweden we see a more recent example of a centre radically addressing the concept of gender. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald appeared in June telling of ‘Egalia’ childcare centre in Stockholm. Here, staff work overtime to obliterate traditional gender roles and equally value, or disrupt, genders.

Children have gender neutral dolls that display only emotions, are addressed in gender neutral pronouns – ‘hen’ rather than the Swedish ‘han’ or ‘hon’ for him and her – and are referred to as “friends” rather than boys or girls.

They cook together, construct together (and if you think those activities aren’t socially gendered anymore, stop and think which of those activities you associated quickly with ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ and if you even bothered to associate another gender with them. Yes, there’s more than two genders.)

The centre has received mostly a positive reception, but you can always rely on the worried psychologists and moral alarmists to interfere. In the article, we’re given this charming insight from Jay Belsky, a child psychologist at the University of California, Davis.

”The kind of things that boys like to do – run around and turn sticks into swords – will soon be disapproved of,” he said. ”So gender neutrality at its worst is emasculating maleness.”

Perhaps it was the snippet chosen by the paper, but I find it interesting that Belsky is more concerned about the emasculation of those assigned as boys than the possible ‘defeminisation’ of those assigned as girls. He doesn’t mention them.

Nice of him, though, to also re-inscribe the idea that boys are innately gendered, and in a hunter/aggressor way. Hey all you peacenik friends of mine who identify as male, please stand up. You’re not really a boy, so you better get yourself a sharp stick, quick.

So these two examples – one from Marrickville and one from Stockholm – show that even in the most conceivably progressive, Queer peopled districts, you can have opinion leaders upset and angered and ‘concerned’ by Queer programs. Interestingly, few parents were cited as angry in these articles.

Now try working a childcare centre in Tamworth and see how far you get with your conversation about how gay is ok, and actually awesome for many. Discussing trans issues? Forget about it, unless you like being othered and eyed with suspicion.

The problem with my parents argument that I’d best not talk to kids, is twofold, despite how correct they may be about what possibilities currently exist within the policy making, care-taking and teaching frameworks of education and care providers.

Firstly, in their submission to practical concerns (which I do not share) they failed to discuss directly whether we should talk to kids about queerness. Forget whether we can. Is there a moral imperative at work here – or two competing ones?

I believe so.

In the one instance where I was able to talk to kids in a non work environment (my four year old cousins), my mother reacted with the same amount of repressive force. In that instance she criticised my use of queer slang around my cousins, saying they were “too young” and that this was something their parents should talk to them about.

The imperative in my mother’s case was very much based in the concept that parents own children, their experiences until they graduate the home, and their moral/social education.

However, if we look at this idea for even a moment, we can see how completely ridiculous it is. Children are instructed directly at school, in youth groups, in churches, in sporting groups and clubs. Most of these institutions take on some of the job of rearing childrens. With perhaps the exception of home-schooled kids, moral and social education is happening everywhere, all the time, and often without the consent of children or parents.

So we can teach kids direct positive messages about race, bodies, food, culture, ethnicity from toddler-dom in care centres and again in schools, but I shouldn’t talk to my family members about an aspect of my identity – or even reference it in passing?

If I said something that referenced my ethnicity or my disability or my gender, I wouldn’t have been taken on. But saying the word “lez” – that’s somehow extreme, right? Riiiiight.

Personally, I think if we dug at the scab of that for long enough, the blood of implicit homophobia would come oozing through. Queerness is a taboo topic, but we don’t want to say that out loud.

We’d just like the pesky Queers to respect parental rights to educate.
But what of the moral imperative to educate? That segues innately with the second flaw of their argument.

The second wobble is that it completely obliterates the role of the Queer community in education as both clients, carers and parents and fails to conceptualise of why their concerns and the need for not just an anti-phobic but a Queer positive environment may be vital.

The fact is, Queers have been parenting for a long time, and will keep on doing so. We people childcare centres with our kids, pay fees and have a right to expect safe places for our children. I shudder to think of what will happen for my little ones when they need group-based supervision – I hope somehow I’m in the position to offer them more than centre care like ABC or my mother’s vision of a political vacuum.

Our kids deserve more than putting up with kids heckling each other with the word ‘gay’ and being tiredly corrected in an “oh this is so PC, but I’ll do it anyway” manner by staff. We deserve more than tolerance. We deserve celebration.

Children are resilient, yes, but they learn how to mould to their worlds and what to expect of it from a ridiculously young age. Cordelia Fine’s recent bestselling book ‘Delusions of Gender’ illustrates in an alarming fashion how children are relentlessly gendered from the smallest of ages, and how this deeply carves ruts of expectation and trajectory into their tiny existences despite our tokenistic efforts at providing (half hearted) gender neutral parenting.

So too are they impacted if we decided to just not raise the whole Queer thing. If we pause awkwardly when the topic arises, they notice. If we say Queerness is sinful, they notice. If we shuffle from foot to foot when we see two men kiss, they notice. If we tell them not to stare at a trans woman – for our comfort and speedy moving on, not the comfort of the trans woman – they notice. Are you getting it? They NOTICE EVERYTHING.

From that they draw their own conclusions, and if their modeling of implicit messages around gender are anything to go by, they aren’t good. An awkward backhander of acknowledgment in seventh grade PE is too little, too late.

If, as adults, we fail them in this most important of regards, then we are responsible for who they grow into.

Many of my queer friends spent some of their teens homeless, in dire mental health, in conflict with their families, in conflict with their peers. Not all, but too many. Suicide statistics in teen gay youth and trans youth are alarming, and the high incidence of violence queers experience is some damn huge fallout – a direct result of our failure to promote radical positivity around queerness.

I’ve been street harassed for holding hands with a female partner. I’ve been called a dyke and a lezzo in a menacing fashion. I’ve had my sexuality held up for amusement, titillation and disdain. I’ve been teased for having short hair, hairy armpits, been vilified for loving multiple people. I’ve had shithead Christians “pray for me”. None of this had to happen if adults had over time, made an effort to change the world for me and celebrate difference.

All kids want to belong and feel ok. How can we do that without mentioning all kids, all families, all kinds of people?

Here’s the thing: we can do it differently, we can start, we can try. If we all just accept that yes, it will be hard, we may have to alienate some people and risk our jobs and crappy interactions with DOCS and faculty heads and family members with agendas – if we accept this, and just move forward with the business of speaking an honest, cheerful, embracing truth…

We can change things. One Ally at a time, and for my kids. Stars in the sky though they are.


Dear love: I am struggling.


Dear love,

As you know, I am struggling with your transition because it means we can’t have a child for a long time.

This is really hard for me because I feel like I’m a bad person for being sad. I want to be able to be just filled with joy for you, and supportive in every way. Yet there is a part of me that is grieving the loss of the little family in the near future that I had envisioned, in the ways I had envisioned it. Suddenly the road just got really complicated and hard for us both and I’ll admit: I’m pissing my pants.

I am so glad you have found a way to be more of yourself, to become who you want and need to be. I never wanted to stop you and though it hurts for now, I think our choices are the right choices.

I hope you understand that my sadness is a separate entity from my gladness. It is hard to feel at once like you believe in what you are doing, believe in the person you love and what they are doing with their life, and also feel like you want to throw a lamp through your window in total crushing disappointment. Also I am freaking my shit out about having to face IVF one day maybe. With the chance of pregnancy loss being so high, and the chance of success so low, it is a really frightening prospect for me. So, it is pretty strange to accommodate competing emotions like that.

I know this is really hard for you, in different and similar ways. You didn’t choose to have a partner who is baby crazy any more than I chose a partner who needed to inhabit their gender so it makes sense. We’re just awesome like that, and we’re doing our best with some awkwardly competing needs. I love our communication and how it is so honest.

I want to thank you for being truthful with me about what you really needed even though it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Thanks for holding my hand and letting me cry in a crowded restaurant. Thanks for not making me feel like a selfish bitch for being sad. And thank god for napkins, hey.

I hope we can grow together and maybe one day make a really attractive toddler that at least three other kids in daycare crush out on.

Also, I might be kinda weepy sometimes about this. I hope not too often. I hope you understand.

xx so much love and hope,

Bettie.


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