Their stubborness, their bodies

Yesterday wasn’t the first day I was reminded that we accidentally on purpose train our daughters to give up rights to their bodies.

Even though the more mindful of us will have conversations with our young ones about ownership of their “private parts,” about “stranger danger”, about saying “No,” there is one place many of us do not let our daughters (or our male children) say when and how someone gets to touch them:

At the doctor’s office.

Or in our case, as of late, the dentist’s.

My daughter has been wary of the doctor since she was a baby — before she had the means to communicate with any body part other than her eyes. Our pediatrician at the time, a kind and aware woman in New Jersey, often joked about my daughter’s “stubborness.”

We joke about it, too.

“What does that mean?” My daughter (four years old, at the time) asked one day after being told (by me), “”You are so stubborn!”

“Stubborn means beautiful,” I would say, caught in that uncomfortable place I often find myself as a mother.  I hadn’t meant stubborn as a compliment, but I didn’t necessarily want her to know that. At that time, stubborn meant “willful” or “demanding” or “contrary.” It referred to my daughter’s insistence on pouring the milk by herself; carrying in her tiny hands the two-layered birthday cake that took an hour to ice.

But, the truth is, stubborn is beautiful, especially when it comes to our daughters. For it’s our willfulness that allows us to say, “No” when we need to.

Unfortunately, when it comes to our young daughters (let’s say under age 10), it seems that only adults get to determine when there is a true need to tell someone, “Hands off!”

When our young daughters say no — whether it is to the doctor or the dentist or the tailor trying to hem a dress — we are annoyed at them. We scold them, or punish them. What message does that send? Do we really expect them to have the courage, later, at age 12 to be able to say a firm, “Get off!” Do we really expect them to believe at age 16, “my body, my choice?”

My daughter has had a few traumatic experiences at the dentist lately. The last one was the last straw and I took her and her file out from the free dental clinic provided by our national health care system here in Israel.  I couldn’t responsibly watch my daughter in that chair anymore being told what to do and that “big girls don’t cry.”

What to do, though? My daughter needed two fillings. How could I make her get them without “making” her?

After a few days, we decided to bring her to a private dentist recommended by a friend — something not in our budget, but as I saw it, a necessity. His reputation was for being kind and gentle and good with children.

He was amazing. He treated her, even at 5 1/2 years old, like someone who was in control of her body. Someone who got to make decisions about when someone touched her and how. He told her from the moment she entered his office, “You are in control. You get to decide.” He even created this “trick” by which the mechanized toothbrush would stop spinning whenever she raised her hand up in the air. She, indeed, got to decide.

I know it’s not simple. Our kids do need to see the doctor and the dentist. There will be times when we make them do things they don’t want — get flu shots, have their ears checked, try on new shoes.

But let’s not fool ourselves, those of us who claim to be advocates for women. Let’s not pretend that we give our girls full freedom. That they make the rules about their bodies. They don’t. At least, not always. Not even in families or with doctors with the best, most progressive intentions.

We send our children, our daughters, very mixed messages.

The straight message: Force is force. Whether it’s in the dorm room or at the dentist.

Is there a way to be more mindful of this, as parents, so our children learn early on the message we want them to internalize? I think so.

I think it starts with: Stubborn is beautiful.