The author and his eight-month-old daughter
In the moment, I barely notice it; it’s like a natural reflex to me. I’ll be introducing my eight-month-old daughter to a new person or a family member we haven’t seen in a while, and she’ll respond with little interest—not smiling, not cooing. Immediately, I’ll spring into apology mode: “I’m sorry, she didn’t nap for as long as she normally does”; “I’m sorry, she’s having some gas issues.” You’d be amazed at how many excuses my brain can concoct in the moment.
I’ve been thinking about this impulse of mine a lot since reading a post by the Girl Scouts of America last week. In it, they advised parents to reconsider the habit of nudging their daughters to hug family members. You’re likely familiar with the scenario—we’ve all been around a casual “Go give your auntie a hug,” or “Aren’t you going to give a kiss to Grandpa?” The Girl Scouts suggest that doing this may send a message you don’t want to send:
“Think of it this way, telling your child that she owes someone a hug either just because she hasn’t seen this person in a while or because they gave her a gift can set the stage for her questioning whether she ‘owes’ another person any type of physical affection when they’ve bought her dinner or done something else seemingly nice for her later in life.”
I admittedly had never thought about this before, though I’ve heard countless parents (including my own) say similar things. Children bring joy to a room, and family members want to shower them with affection. But apply the situation to an adult, and it makes immediate sense. You would never force a friend to give someone a hug. The Girl Scouts are plainly asking: Why can’t we extend this courtesy to children?
When I apologize for my daughter not smiling, I always feel guilty about it. Rationally, I know she’s entitled to have bad days, days when she’s not her warmest, friendliest self. Rationally, I know I should stop apologizing for those days, because she doesn’t owe anyone her radiant smile. I want her to grow up with a sense of ownership and agency over her own feelings — that’s a crucial building block of emotional intelligence.
None of this is to discredit the (correct) parental impulse to teach children politeness and and encourage their warmth. That’s important. However, my daughter also needs to develop the ability to work out her own feelings and react to the world accordingly, without added pressure from me to appear particularly happy—or sad, or angry, or any other feeling.
But I apologize automatically. Why do I do that? Where did I learn that? As far as I can tell, it’s a reaction that comes from a self-protective instinct: In that moment, I don’t want to be seen as a “bad parent,” a parent who teaches their child to be rude or indifferent to others. I leap to explain because I fear that her response will be read as a direct result of my parenting.
But that’s a dangerous mistake on my part.
It’s a mistake to instill in my child an early sense that her personal boundaries have anything to do with my performance as a parent. She’s still far too young to digest concepts like consent and agency, but if I keep up with this behaviour, and maintain a dynamic where I apologize for her moods, it’s not hard to imagine a future where her boundaries become confused with her desire to spare me shame or save face.
The Scouts’ post spurred a strong reaction, leading to hundreds of Facebook comments. A common sentiment soon emerged: Consent may be too complex an idea for young children. The organization’s psychologist, Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald, pushed back against the response, telling the New York Times, “the notion of consent may seem very grown-up and like something that doesn’t pertain to children, but the lessons girls learn when they’re young about setting physical boundaries and expecting them to be respected last a lifetime.”
Dr. Archibald’s response raises a valuable point that new parents like me rarely think about: By relegating consent and agency to the pile of “adult topics I’ll figure out how to introduce to my child when it becomes an issue,” we forgo a valuable opportunity to start that training early. Look, you don’t have to have the conversation about religion or swearing when kids are two years old. But the stakes are higher when it comes to personal boundaries. Children may not understand the words but they almost certainly pick up on the ways we want them to behave through our responses to them, whether verbal or non-verbal. Those lessons get ingrained early.
My next focus is to learn to separate my daughter’s agency from the way others are evaluating me as a parent. That means pausing the next time I introduce her, and letting her react how she is feeling, without explaining it. No matter how awkward it is. If it gets quiet, bear with me — that’s me learning to deal with my own feelings.