It’s especially sunny and beautiful on the day that a boy at the local playground shoves my three-year-old in the head.
The sun, in fact, is streaming through the windows of a wood playhouse. I poke my head inside of that playhouse to see my three-year-old standing at the opposite wall, back turned to me. She’s looking out another window. Maybe she’s examining the monkey bars or the yellowing leaves or the grass on the hill. A blond boy stands next to her, same size, three-feet. And bam, he shoves her in the head.
My daughter turns and locks eyes with me. The boy’s mother is fifty feet away, chatting on a bench. The discipline here is mine to dole. I’m categorically conflict-adverse, but I also don’t want my daughter believing that his behaviour is okay.
“Hey,” I say in a voice I’ve spent years trying on like a red tie. Stern. Solid. Authoritative about boundaries. “Don’t push people’s heads! Keep your hands to yourself!”
The boy looks at me without apology, a closed-mouthed vacant gaze that says: That was mine to do and So there. He walks away.
A month later, a man running for my country’s highest office will make news for bragging that he grabs women’s vaginas without asking. But this is now, in September, on a New England playground in the yellow sun when the leaves are still on the trees.
“That was mean,” a girl beside me says.
“He made a mean choice,” I say, because parents are told to word things this way.
“He wanted to look out the window,” says my daughter. And right there in her voice I hear it—the sentiment I carry in my own body. An apology. As in: I’m sorry my face was in the window his face wanted to look through.
Women apologize for existing, a friend of mine once said, and I nodded and noted how I say I’m sorry in an elevator when a man bumps into me, and I’m sorry on an airplane when a man nudges my arm off the shared armrest. I’m sorry.
“But you were looking out the window,” I say to my daughter. I want to say, Please, kid. Don’t already feel guilty for having a body that takes up space. Don’t already feel sorry for having a face that wants to look through a window.
The debate: Do you discipline other people’s kids at the playground? At the playground, boys have not only pushed my daughter in the head, they’ve cobbled her with unrequested hugs or kisses, tackled her, shoved past her in a line for a turn at the slide and nearly hit her with giant sticks they called “an axe.” I wish this behaviour didn’t fall along such stereotypical gender lines, but so far it always has. When I’ve looked around for the kids’ parents, they’re often too far away to notice. When there is a parent around, I pause a beat. I wait for the parent to weigh in sternly that such behaviour is unacceptable.
What I hear in reply is often something akin to a plea. “Chaaarlie… Charlie, be nice.” The kid tramples away, carries on elsewhere. The lines haven’t been drawn. The lesson is fuzzy, for Charlie and for my daughter. And I’m left with the mental and emotional cleanup.
At dinner that night, my husband and I practice with our daughter what one might do should a boy, or any person, shoves her in the head or hits her with a stick or does anything else that harms her. My plate of lasagna is all gone, and her plate of cottage cheese is half-eaten.
“You can tell people, ‘Stop that! Keep your hands to yourself!’” With one hand against the palm of another, I make a perpendicular angle, showing her the ASL sign for stop.
“He wanted to look out the window,” she says. “I could let him look out the window.” She says this wistfully.
“But if someone pushes you, or hurts you in any way, or touches you when you don’t want them to, that’s not your fault. You can tell them, ‘No! Don’t do that!’”
“You can say, ‘Stop! Keep your hands to yourself!’ Here. Let’s practice. Do you want to practice?”
She nods, and I stand up from my side of the table and walk around it. “I’ll pretend to push you in the head, and you tell me to stop.”
She nods with a smirk, like I’ve just told her a secret. I get my right hand within inches of her head and fake like there’s an imaginary force against my palm, then lean back.
Through a wide smile, barely audible, she murmurs, “No. Stop that. Keep your hands to yourself.”
“Alright!” I say like a soccer coach who’s pleased with a pass, but I see there’s work to do. “Wanna try again?” We do. She offers the same unconvincing murmur.
My husband steps in. “Here, wanna see what I would do? You push me in the head?” Tall and lean, my husband squats down to her level. Still seated at the table, she leans toward him with her plum-sized hand outstretched and pushes him on the forehead, just like the boy did.
He stands up. In his deep voice, he barks, “You better knock it off! Keep your hands to yourself!”
It’s an excellent performance. It’s the voice I’ve been trying to wear for years, the one that feels like a red tie on my neck: authoritative, firm, unapologetic. I applaud so she knows he’s playing.
This is the kind of lesson I, as a girl, never got. This is the kind of work I now feel responsible to do. I’m trying to learn this lesson at the playground along with my daughter. I’m trying to be the model she needs, the stern voice of “No” because I know how much is at stake for women. I know how many ways people will try to erase her boundaries. I know how hard those boundaries are to draw when people like the U.S. president says he can break them. I hear the continuous chorus of #metoos, and I, like nearly every woman on earth, join them.
She giggles. “I can say, ‘Stop!’” she says, putting one hand perpendicularly on the palm of another.
“That’s right,” I say.
“I can say, ‘Keep your hands to yourself!”
I take a good clean breath, knowing the lesson won’t be quite enough in this world. But it’s a start.