Content warning: Discussion of sexual abuse ahead.
I was leaving a restaurant the other day after having breakfast with my family, carrying my napping baby in my arms while his head rested on my chest. As I was preparing to walk out the door, a woman in passing commented on how adorable he was and then proceeded to reach out and stroke his hair. Though every fiber of my being wanted to yell at her, I quickly pulled away and firmly stated, “Please don't touch the baby.”
The lady paused and looked taken aback and confused for a moment, but then continued to carry on the conversation about how she admired his head full of hair and how loved he must be. I kindly thanked her and walked out of the restaurant, agitated by how consistent this experience was becoming for me. My family praised how quickly I jumped into "mama bear mode", and I praised myself as well.
Because months ago when motherhood was all brand new and I was taking my son out for the first few times, I wouldn’t say anything. I didn’t want to come off as an overprotective parent. Until I began to realize that in this stage, while my child cannot speak or make decisions for himself, he needs me to be that parent. That parent who will speak up for him when people invade his personal space and that parent who will teach him that he has the right to choose how he wants to (or doesn't want to) interact with others, especially complete strangers.
Babies—as adorable as they are—are not public property.
The idea that anyone can just go up to a baby and touch them or pick them up without asking the parent first is outrageous. And it’s a dangerous act in teaching children that it's ok for people to touch them without consent. This isn’t just my problem. It’s a universal one.
Babies—as adorable as they are—are not public property. They are not on display for strangers to “pet” them. From the time a baby is forming, people seem to have this idea that they are entitled to be in that child’s space. They go up to a pregnant woman in public and rub her belly (cues internal scream). They go up to a woman holding a child and touch that child’s face as if there is an open invitation that provokes them to do so. But there isn’t.
And so here is my PSA, written in big bold letters and shouted from every rooftop that I can possibly find: Stop touching babies without their parents' consent.
Because… germs. And also, because I said so. And as my child’s parent, I have the right to set those boundaries until he is able to set them for himself.
In addition to the fact that I don’t know where your hands have been and you should know by now that babies are small and vulnerable beings, it’s just outright ill-mannered to invade anyone’s personal space. Though I certainly don’t want your germy hands that have been god knows where grabbing the tiny fingers that my baby stuffs into his mouth several times a day, I also just don’t want you to touch him. Period.
And I shouldn’t have to shield my decision with the excuse that we are in the midst of a pandemic and health concerns are far too many. Certainly, they are. But even if circumstances were different, my decision would still remain firm.
Not allowing people to touch my baby without permission is important to me because it is a practice to teach my child consent and autonomy over his body. And this lesson will carry far beyond this particular moment. I was sexually abused as a child. Growing up—and before I even became a mother—I told myself that I didn’t want my children to experience anything like that. So I believe that it is highly important to begin teaching my child now, from a young age, about consent so he understands that he doesn’t have to allow someone to touch or interact with him in a way he's uncomfortable with or in a way that he knows is wrong.
It may seem small to you, but it is a big deal to us.
I also expect the same type of understanding from family members at large gatherings. I don’t like my baby being passed around. If I leave him with one person while I step out of the room, I expect that same person to be the one holding him when I get back. And that is something that I’ve had to communicate more and more. It's not being rude. It's setting boundaries.
Because my child has the right to say no. But until he gets to the age of verbalizing that for himself, I or his father will make that decision for him. And right now, we say don't touch the baby without our permission first. And if you ask and we decide to say no, respect our decision.
So if I pull away when you go to touch my baby, please understand that I am not being mean. I am setting the foundation for a valuable life lesson that my child will learn as he grows.
His cuteness and his chubby cheeks may tempt you to pinch and poke at him, but please do not. I am not saying that we do not appreciate your comments and admiration for our baby. We do. But unless we give you permission to do otherwise, those comments should stay as just that—comments. Not proceeding to pinch my baby’s face or squish his nose.
It may seem small to you, but it is a big deal to us.
Even if they are the cutest little thing that you've ever seen. Don't touch the baby. Even if they smile at you. Don't touch the baby. Even if you're having a rough day and think this adorable little human can cheer you up. Don't touch the baby. Just don't touch the baby.
Ask that mother or father for their permission first. Not while you are doing it. Not after you have already done it. But before.
Because this shows that you respect their space, and that goes further than you can ever imagine.