I bought a new-to-me car this past weekend. While I dearly loved my bright blue Ford Focus and went on many excellent adventures with “Li’l Blue”, it was time to find a vehicle more reliable on rugged Albertan winter roads. So I found a steal of a deal in a used Toyota Rav 4.
Of course the first thing I HAD to do was to drive it over to show my three small nephews (ages 7, 5, and 2 respectively). Since my dad and I still had a two hour drive home, we couldn’t stay long. I was there long enough for the boys to clamber in, sit on the seats, get excited, and then it was time to cruise. I hurried back into my brother and sister-in-law’s house to snag hugs before I left. The middle nephew, Dodger, was at the door.
“Ok, Dodger! Auntie’s got to go now. Gimme a hug before I leave, ok?”
“Nooooo!” came the wailing whine, and an immediate attempt to dash away.
“No, Dodger,” said my sister-in-law “that is unacceptable. You are allowed to choose whether or not to hug someone, but running away is not an answer. Can you answer Auntie Erin, please? If you don’t want a hug, please say ‘no thank you’.”
Knowing he was struggling a little bit, I crouched down and replied:
“You know, Dodger, if you don’t want to hug me, my feelings won’t be hurt.”
There was a pause and then came a mumbled: “No thank you.”
That took a lot of courage on his part. For a small person to look into the face of a big person and take a stand, that required a rustling up of guts.
I’ll be the first to confess that when I told Dodger that my feelings wouldn’t be hurt if he didn’t want a hug, my poor Auntie heart broke in two inside.
My beloved, darling nephews don’t want to hug me???
I can’t handle this!
I hollered a “Goodbye!” to Cubbie (the eldest), and all I got back from the couch was a shout in return: “Bye!”
And he’s the one who would normally jump on top of me in excitement.
Heavens, have we reached the “I don’t want to hug you” stage already? It’s too soon!
I’m sure many of you can relate to quagmire of feelings when children begin to pull away like this just a bit, and then a bit more, and a little bit more still. Sigh…
When Cubbie was born 7.5 years ago, I made a commitment that I would not be “that auntie” who would smother this child (or any of his subsequent siblings). I would not force kisses on them when they clearly were not ready for them, nor would I squash them in hugs when they were not in the mood. I would not transgress their boundaries simply because I wanted to physically express my undying love for them.
It’s a whole different matter when they say they don’t want hugs or kisses or physical affection, but their giggles clearly indicate that they do and it’s all a happy game. That’s different! However, Saturday was an absolutely “NO, Auntie Erin.”
Dodger was taking agency over his own body and boundaries. He was listening to his needs and being courageous enough to tell me about them.
That’s deeply sacred.
The world we live in is fractured over how to have conversations about consent — physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual — or if we need to have them at all. The disastrous comments from US presidential nominee Donald Trump has shone the spotlight on white male privilege, and how men have been able to get away with abusive talk while brushing it off as how boys simply are. The scary thing is: people like Trump actually believe that they aren’t doing anything harmful. Why is the world up in arms? Can’t anyone take a joke these days?
Clearly when we begin to try and fathom the sheer numbers of sexual assault victims, these jokes are vital parts of the poisonous plant that is misogyny. Sadly, it’s only one noxious weed in the overgrown garden of power and control where dwells racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, extremism, Islamophobia, and many other dangerous but pervasive growths. Some of this toxic vegetation have roots that grow down centuries.
What does all of this have to do with a five-year-old telling his Auntie that he doesn’t want a hug?
He’s learning to listen to what he’s safe with and what he’s not; what he’s comfortable with, and what he’s not. But more than that, he’s learning to use his own voice to speak his truth to power (me obviously being in the superior position of being able to simply take a hug from him). He’s learning to trust his conscience, his faith, and his intuition.
When I respond in respect and humility to this child in ways that build trust between us rather than a power structure, I am responding to the Christ evident in him.
How can this not be deeply spiritual?
From a Christological perspective, we rarely see Jesus imposing himself on others (tossing the tables in the temple might break that meek streak) and yet we also see him advocating for his own self (walking through the crowd that was ready to toss him over the cliff would be a good example).
We all read intonation and inflection in Jesus’ voice when we read his words in the Gospels, each and every one of us.
However there was not one action inflicted against Jesus that he did not allow…even the cross. He chose to go with the guards while in the Garden, he chose to be arrested, and he chose very carefully the few words he exchanged with Pilate.
Considering the events after the resurrection, Jesus chose to return to his friends. Sure he may have prophesied that he was going to be raised in three days, but what did that really mean in the moment for the disciples? Not much. It would have been more sensical for Jesus to make few candids to prove a point and then scoot off. Yet he chose to remain to spend a few precious moments in the garden with Mary; he chose to let Thomas doubt for as long as he needed, and then to use physical touch to restore a traumatized relationship; and he chose to wait all night on the shore of the sea in order to make breakfast for his friends.
Consent and choice.
My nephews are learning Christ-like behaviour by beginning to discern what is good for them and in them. Dodger might not think that refusing one hug would have had such a huge impact, but in time he will learn. The world will throw at him many opportunities for him to test his voice. The real crux of the matter will not be IF he uses his voice or not, but HOW. For indeed there will be times when he will need to step aside, be silent, and support the voice of another.
All in good time, Dodger. All in good time.
There will be plenty of other ways my boys will express their for me.
However I do reserve all rights on hugs when I shout: “I don’t want your hugs anyway because they smell like stinky socks and mouldy cheese!”, and suddenly find myself dog-piled on by three chaps who think it’s hilarious to make Auntie stink like socks and cheese.
Did I mention I’m fluent in kid language?