Let’s Not Play That Game

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I did not know I had an addictive personality until I had children. As it turned out, I would do anything – anything – for the high of hearing my babies laugh. Silly faces, songs on repeat, tickles and puppets and raspberries on their squashy bellies: whatever it took. On a good day, diaper changes were a festival of delighted squeals.

However, as each of them turned the corner into toddlerhood, something about the game changed and mock-resistance became part of the play. “Noooooooo, Mama,” my daughter would giggle as I bent to kiss her neck. “Stop it!” my son would squeal, trying to shield his tummy even while breathless with laughter.

And one day, I stopped.

“Let’s not play that game,” I told my confused toddler. “You said no, and so Mommy is going to stop. If you say stop, I will stop.”

She sized me up for a minute. “Tickle me again,” she dared. So I did.

“Stop!” she cried. And I did.

“No means no,” and “stop means stop” have become well-worn phrases in our house. When the wrestling gets too rough with Daddy, when the baby keeps trying to grab the glitter glue project, when the game of Tag turns into a game of Shove: “no” has to mean something. We practice it in play time, because these are the rehearsals for a life time of knowing your boundaries and owning your voice.

There was something terrifying in that moment, poised mid-play above my giggling daughter, in realizing that even though she was laughing and I was laughing, she was still saying no, and I was strong enough to overpower her. At what age would she learn that she had the right to say ‘no’ about what happened to her body? When would my sons learn it was okay to stand up to a bully? After all, a bully’s most cowardly line of defense is “what are you getting so upset about? I was only joking.”

I flushed at the realization. If owning their “no” is something I hope for my children in adulthood, then I had to let them own their no in their childhood. Even as toddlers. Even while giggling. Even with their mother.

We took a family trip to the beach recently: a weekend of ice-cream and boardwalk rides and gorgeous Santa Cruz sunsets. Walking home after an afternoon of breathless wave chasing, we passed by a teenage couple seated in a car in the parking lot. Something about them caught my eye.

They were smiling and flirting, and the boy leaned over and put his hand on her breast. She swatted his hands away, laughing. I saw her lips move: “Stop it.” He reached for her again, and again, and again, both of them laughing, her swatting, and me with a rising sense of panic .

He startled at the loud knock on the car window, nostrils flared at the stranger yelling at him: “Cut it out! Her body belongs to HER, and she will tell you if and when you are allowed to touch it. If she says no: stop. Immediately. And wipe that smirk off your face. No means no.”

I don’t even know where the voice came from.

But I wondered, as I walked away stunned at what had just happened, whether either of those teens had ever played a game in their childhood where tickling trumped discomfort, and no’s were smothered by giggles. Maybe nobody had ever honored their toddler resistance, and said, “Let’s not play that game. Your no means no.”


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13 thoughts on “Let’s Not Play That Game”

  1. Good for you! I bet you freaked that teenage boy out, but he (and she) needed to hear that no means no. (And you never know . . . you might’ve prevented something worse from happening, if not at that moment, then later, or even with another partner.) That’s one reason why I’ve never tried to force my kids to hug anyone, even a relative who might get her/his feelings hurt. Sorry, Aunt Myrtle might be totally harmless, but my daughters need to know that they can say no to being touched or touching someone else. (And if I had sons, I’d tell them the same thing.)

    1. I’ve wondered about the “do my kids have to hug relatives?” thing, too. I think I lean towards your position, but I feel some guilt about “allowing our children to be rude” and “not teaching the social manners.” I wonder what French mothers (since I seem to be hearing so much about the wisdom of French parenting these days) do to teach their children the custom of kissing on the cheeks. Do you think their kids are forced to do so?

      1. I have no clue what French mamas and papas do about the kiss-on-the-cheek custom, though I suspect that the kids see the mamas and papas engage in that behavior so often, that it looks normal and doesn’t come loaded with the same connotations that it would in American culture. I don’t see Americans hugging and kissing acquaintances quite as much (some more than others, and a female-female pairing more than a male-female pairing) and so it seems strange to force my kids to hug/kiss when I don’t do it myself. I’m not a huggy person and I don’t like it when people hug me; no particular reason, it’s just not my thing and makes me uncomfortable. I wish those who were big social huggers would realize that they might be making other people (like myself) uncomfortable. If we want to teach proper social manners, it seems like a handshake (along with looking the person in the eye and speaking clearly) might be a better and more versatile skill to learn in our culture. It certainly wasn’t something I was ever taught!

  2. I had to relearn my sense of boundaries and “no” in adulthood. And now I have the power to say no to a donut. It’s important in every aspect of life–even inanimate objects!

  3. Yes. But somewhere between “no” meaning “no” and personal privacy that can involve teasing comes a Victorian sort of nay-saying that is over-controlled like something I saw in the lives of my grandparents and many others before the invention of birth control. I think of the times when I was so tired and stressed I couldn’t think of responding to him with “yes” but my husband’s refusal to take a flat “no” led us into healing that gives meaning to the phrase “making love.” Don’t forget that “no” can become addictive, too.

    1. I think you’re describing a very different situation: negotiating yes and no between two married adults. It differs because they have already made a covenant to “love one another’s body as their own” in faithful, considerate, mutual love and different also because they have surrendered their bodies to one another (for the husband’s body belongs to the wife, and the wife’s to her husband).

      My hope in saying “no means no” is that my children will grow up also realizing they have a responsibility to say yes in thoughtful, wise ways. And, I think, if they learn the “addictive habit” of saying no, they may learn fairly soon that it means they miss out on some well-meant fun in certain situations. Maybe, having judged that person or situation to be safe, they say yes in the future.

  4. “no” has to mean something.

    Thanks for showing us how that’s done, Bron. And I wonder if that young man and woman ever went on another date?

  5. Very though provoking. One thing about the French kissing cheeks. There is less physical contact doing not that than you get hugging someone. Not everyone does it,either.

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