Establishing Physical Boundaries And Consent For My 5-Year-Old Daughter

Teaching Young Girls Consent
Flickr / Montse PB
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My 5-year-old daughter and I have a local sushi restaurant we go to regularly, where it feels like she is the 3’6″, 40 lbs version of “Norm!” The waitresses love Sara. Whenever we show up, they fawn all over her, we get “extra” edamame, miso soup, etc. It feels really nice to have that one spot where everyone knows your (daughter’s) name. One server in particular has developed an especially strong fondness for Sara, giving her well-intentioned hugs, tickles, pats on the head, and has done so since she was 2.

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But the more I have read about and shared numerous articles about consent, it has heightened my awareness around the importance of speaking up — not only in very obvious cases of boundary crossing aggressions, but also in the more subtle, less obvious situations. This gave me a great opportunity for me to exercise my own boundary-setting muscle. I have noticed for some time that Sara has become increasingly uncomfortable when this one waitress comes by, knowing she will have to endure the waitress’ equivalent of the grandmotherly ‘pinch on the cheek.’

Don’t get me wrong, this woman is really sweet, and as I mentioned before, very well-intentioned. But she is a little overzealous in showing her appreciation. As a result, she is a little unaware of how her affections are received. When I noticed it tonight, I asked Sara, if it feels uncomfortable when our waitress gives her pats and hugs. She said yes. I asked her if she would like me to say something to her. She said “Yes, please, Daddy.”

I gave it quite a bit of consideration through the rest of dinner. It is easy to be a keyboard activist, shouting from the proverbial mountaintops of social media, sharing articles, accompanied by a well-placed comment, to accentuate the point of the article.

I thought I noticed her little body shrink slightly, from the weight of a perfectly innocent, but unwanted hug.

But in a potentially awkward social situation, I was faced with the reality of risking the good favor of the waitresses and potentially jeopardizing that heady feeling of walking into the proverbial neighborhood bar with the status of a Cheers barfly. So I mulled it over while finishing my bento box. What if she took it wrong? What if she was offended? Would my “extra” edamame/miso supply dry up? In the immortal words of Ray Liotta at the end of Goodfellas, would I become “just an average nobody, having to live the rest of my life like a shnook?”

Looking into the eyes of Sara, I noticed every time the waitress came near our table, she would get quiet. The decision became clearer than the waters of a fresh-water lake at the tip of Michigan’s pinkie-crystal. Faced with this resolve, it didn’t make it any easier, but my conviction grew. I was past any point of second guessing self-doubt, no longer questioning whether I would speak up for my daughter.

I had already asked Sara if it made her uncomfortable and she had confirmed that she did want me to say something. So … after I paid the bill, as we were headed toward the exit, I braced myself as the waitress hurried over to give Sara her regular hug on our way out the door. It happened so fast I didn’t have time to step in, and quite honestly, even if I did, it would have been super awkward, in that moment. So, I let her give Sara a hug, then I let Sara walk out the door. I thought I noticed her little body shrink slightly, from the weight of a perfectly innocent, but unwanted hug.

I asked the waitress if I could tell her something. I told her that although Sara loves coming here — it is truly her favorite restaurant — and she enjoys seeing her, sometimes Sara feels uncomfortable with some of the pats on the head, tickles and hugs. I explained that we were working on just giving high fives instead of hugs. As uncomfortable and awkward as it felt in the moment, it was equally liberating and satisfying. Sara not only got to experience her dear old Dad sticking up for her, but she also got to witness what it would look like to set a boundary around respecting her body.

The waitress took it very well, as she said she understood and raised no objections. I thanked her, and Sara came back in and asked her for some more water. The waitress refilled her water cup, and I asked Sara if she wanted to give her a thank you “high-five.” Grinning, Sara high-fived the waitress, and I gave our waitress a knowing smile and thank-you nod. We then stepped out of the restaurant, a few steps lighter and even more empowered.

Who knows what our next visit to the sushi restaurant will entail, but we got to walk away with a little lesson in consent to go along with our katsu bento box of leftovers.

Ken Scheible is a single dad and a writer.

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