La La How The Life Goes On

Adults Behaving Badly

Posted on: November 17, 2011

One of the least discussed aspects of the Penn State case is the bravery of the kids who told someone about their discomfort with Jerry Sandusky, thereby leading to the grand jury investigation that put a stop to his alleged crimes against children. As a parent, I cannot express how gratifying it is to hear that some of these children spoke up, because that is precisely what I pray I am raising my girls to do.

Our house rules seem disrespectful in the eyes of many older people, but we don’t happen to care. Our rules? Our girls are under zero-zero-zero obligation to touch, kiss, hug or otherwise interact with any adult with whom they feel uncomfortable. End of story. We require them to say polite hellos and make eye contact, but we never say, “Now give great aunt Flossie’s friend whom you’ve never met a hug.” Why? Because forcing that interaction teaches your child that some social situations with adults require you to turn off or not listen to the part of your brain that is urging you against it. Imagine if your boss introduced the new IT guy and then required you to hug and kiss him to be polite. Insane, right? And yet we expect it of kids all the time. I never want to teach my girls that “manners” require them to show affection to grown up people for whom they feel no affection. Again, we don’t allow general rudeness, but we offer interested adults a fist bump or a high five instead.

Although, having just said that, I actually do teach my girls to be rude. Bambina and I have had many a conversation regarding Adults Behaving Badly. I have taught her that it is 100% okay to be “rude” to any grown up who is acting inappropriately. For instance, one guideline: there is not an adult in the world who needs the help of a kid. Not to find a lost dog, not for directions, not for anything. Adults can always find another adult if they require help. Therefore, you have my permission–and direct order– to run away, yell, do whatever ” rude” thing you need to do to get away from that adult, because that adult is behaving inappropriately. My kids are under no obligation to be polite to inappropriate adults, and under every obligation to tell me if it happens because–again–grown ups deal with grown ups.

One day two summers ago I was bringing the trash cans out from the backyard while Bambina was playing in the front yard. As I came around the side if the house I saw an older man talking to her and trying to get her to shake his hand, from which she was recoiling. I went incandescent. I ran over to him and said, “hello?” He launched into his “I was just saying hello to this lovely lady here.” me: stone faced, clearly unhappy. So he continued quickly with his, I was just out for a walk and thought I’d say hello. To which I replied, “well, hello. See you later.” I was fucking FURIOUS, and Bambina could tell. So we had a chat about how she had done nothing wrong but that man had behaved very badly by talking to a young kid without her parents present, and how adults should know better. How that man had behaved badly and how she had done the right thing by not taking his hand when it didn’t feel right in her tummy. I could see her relief when she heard me say that, because she knew that I understood that weird mix of confusion and nervousness she had been feeling when an adult is doing things that make you feel uncomfortable. Which led to our other guideline: if you ever feel that feeling, get away by any means necessary and tell mama, tell anyone.

In the end, what we want most for our girls is that they always have a feeling of agency over their bodies, a sense that the only person in control of it is them. A belief that no one has a right to touch you or have you touch them unless you feel okay with it. More important than that, perhaps, is the belief in the fallibility of adults–and this is where we get pushback from people who believe in traditional manners–that saying No to a grown up is accepted and encouraged if that grown up is asking you to do something you know is or feels wrong.

Thank goodness those kids in Pennsylvania had that sense of personal agency. Thank goodness they felt like they could say something, felt like they had the right to speak the truth, damn the adults behaving badly and damn the “respect” and damn the “politeness”. It took tremendous courage; tragically, a courage illustrated most keenly by its utter absence in the adults.


2 Responses to "Adults Behaving Badly"

This was an eloquent, moving and astute blog post about validating children’s instincts and explicitly teaching ownership of their person. Thank you for sharing this and stating it so clearly. Much of our society is hooked into gender norms of a different time, when children were required to perform for the entertainment of adult notions of childhood. it is an approach that creates victims / survivors because it teaches the children the ignore their own courage and instincts. You are a parent who reminds your children to trust their tummy and not interact unless they want to or feels right whereas I am a “childless” grown-person who reminds parents leave their child to approach me only if and when they feel comfortable to do so. I instead interact with the parent, and might include the child in the conversation by asking them a laid-back but interested question to give them the chance to participate. I’ve noticed that the child who hears me say this, more often than not, will seek to connect in some sweet way in their own time.

The man who tried to talk to and touch your daughter was completely in the wrong, and you really made that a teachable moment to their future security, Kudos.

It was through my experience as a child who couldn’t trust adults that taught me to be sensitive to and respectful of the prerogatives of young people. it is great to know that there are clear-headed pragmatic parents out there, and thank you for writing the post, as it will undoubtedly inspire other parents to rethink their own stance.


Yes. YES. YES! This is how we handle things as well. Ever since my first was born I’ve told my girls that their bodies belong to them alone. The other day we were headed to a study/play date so we were reviewing how we should behave in someone else’s home. This starts with following our own family rules as well as whatever rules their family has in place but moves quickly into what to do if you feel weird or uncomfortable.
I need to get on the whole “adults don’t need your help” thing though, hadn’t really thought about that yet.

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