Earlier this week, a friend posted about how happy she was that her young daughter was absorbing her lessons about being “more modest around Daddy” so that she could be a “proper lady.” Maybe this sounds good to some folks – less streaking through the house, closed doors during bathroom time – and who wouldn’t want less streaking and a moment of privacy once in awhile? But, something about that post bugged me. It bugged me a lot. So, I did what everyone does when something bugs them on Facebook: I posted about it.
No, I didn’t post about it where the original poster would see it. I do have some social graces. (Some.) And besides, this person is an AMAZING mother. She and her husband are kind, decent, loving people and I know that her statement was probably like some of my own – just something said in passing as a means to a much-desired end. Like the time I told my son McDonald’s puts poo in their food so that he would quit encouraging daddy to take him on secret trips to that bastion of nastiness. If I had known at the time how many embarrassing moments that little statement would create, I would never have said it. Anywho, I posted about the modesty comment in a closed, secret group whose members are mothers like me, most of us going against the local cultural grain and raising children without things like rigid gender roles and spankings.
Of course, whereas everyone agreed that something about that post was “off,” no one could articulate what was so bothersome. One friend posted about how sad she felt when, at age eight, her mother told her she could no longer sit on her father’s lap or cuddle with him, but there were no other useful replies. So, I had to live with it awhile.
In the meantime, it was bath day, so I showered with both boys. I soaped their bodies and washed my own. The older one is learning to wash himself now and proudly said, “I’m washing my body to be healthy!” Then, I dressed them – after chasing the mobile one naked down the hall – and got dressed myself. Later in the day, I explained to him for the twenty-second time why it is not necessary to change his underpants after he pees, and then had a brain flash and taught him what that nifty little flap is for on the front of his skivvies. He ran to the kitchen in all his glory to show his dad his new trick and back again to finish dressing. I nursed the baby throughout the day, my older son joining us on the couch at times, gently touching my breasts as his brother fed and noticing which one was full and which one was not. He also used my legs as a stomping ground for various dinosaur toys; when one of them stomped into my groin, I explained that it was private and dinosaurs aren’t allowed to stomp there. This was okay with my son – and the dinosaur. I wiped bottoms several times throughout the day and, after wrestling my older son into his pajamas and into his bed that night, collapsed into my own bed topless to nurse the little raptor.
And, then it hit me. Whenever I hear “modesty” mentioned, it is always tied to the idea that a person (almost always female) needs to cover their body so as not to embarrass or, worse, sexually excite another person. So to me, telling a child they need to be modest around the opposite sex parent implies that the parent is likely to be a) embarrassed by the child’s body and/or b) sexually excited by it. As a mom, both of those ideas are repugnant to me. My sons’ bodies do not embarrass me – I grew those little bodies in all their beauty and wonder inside my own. And the suggestion that their bodies are or ever will be sexually exciting to me is so horrible, so unfathomable that I just don’t have any words. If I were a father of little girls, I would not want these to be the messages conveyed to my children.
And since my friend explicitly ties modesty to being ladylike, it sounds to me like the preamble to the argument that boys/men can’t control themselves, that women are responsible for boys/men, and that women who are assaulted are somehow to blame. Definitely not a message I want my children to absorb.
So, in our house, bodies are just bodies – cool and freaky and awesome. Bodies make scabs to protect boo boos and then HEAL THEMSELVES. Bodies have parts that get stinkier than others. Bodies have parts that are private – only mommy, daddy and the doctor have any reason to touch them. Bodies burp and fart and sing and whistle. Bodies take food and turn it into energy for us to live. Bodies have hairs in different places: you get more hairs when you get older, and then some hairs fall out when you get really old. Bodies run and jump and climb. Boy bodies have penises that can shoot pee really far. Mommy bodies can grow babies inside and then they make milk for babies to eat. Mommy bodies get squishy tummies from growing babies, but the squishy tummies feel good for resting on and make nifty puppets. Bodies are for living and bodies are for loving and they aren’t something to be ashamed of – they are something to be lovingly cared for.
Those are the messages I want my children to absorb – not shame-inducing messages about themselves or about their mother’s mental health. Might I change my mind when they grow older? Perhaps, but doubtful. Will I be thrilled if they streak down the hall at fifteen? No, but as long as they don’t head out the front door, I can deal. I certainly won’t need to bathe with them when they are eight, but I’m not going to have the vapors if one of them walks in on me in the shower. I believe children learn to respect their bodies – and others – not by hiding them away or adhering to antiquated notions of “ladylike” or “gentlemanly” behavior – but by learning about them and how to care for and appropriately appreciate other bodies. I want my boys to love themselves – every part of themselves – and I want them to know that I always will, too.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, my oldest just streaked down the hallway and I think he’s headed for the front door.