I was sitting helping a group of first graders color their pictures. Amy stood up to show me something. She looked at me smiling. Then her eyes drifted to my hair.
“Can I touch your hair?” She said in heavily accented English.
“No,” I said sternly.
“Ohhhh,” she grumbled, and proceeded to walk around me, then behind me. I sensed her hand sticking out to touch my hair and snapped my head back and around to face her.
“Amy, I said no. When someone tells you no, don’t touch them.”
She grumbled again and stomped back to her chair.
I was immediately reminded of what happened in my second grade class two days earlier.
I was helping Tim, and as part of my playful praising, I patted his head.
A few seconds later, he was reaching for my hair.
I jerked my head back. “Tim, no,” I said. “We don’t…”
I stopped, unsure of what to say next. Usually in situations like this, where a kid does something that’s inappropriate, like hit another kid, I’ll say: “We don’t hit other people,” or “we keep our hands to ourselves.”
But how could I say: “We don’t touch other people’s heads,” when moments earlier I had touched his head.
“I don’t want my head touched,” I said, and left it at that, unsure of how to act in future interactions with students.
Amy had clearly been in the wrong when she tried to touch my hair after I’d verbally said “no.” Some might roll their eyes, but I think little behaviors like this can add up and contribute to troubling things like acceptance of rape culture in our society. So I didn’t feel bad about being stern with Amy.
But Tim? I had snapped at him too, but he was just mimicking my behavior when I play. I pat kids on the head or tickle them or pick up them up without asking if that’s OK. But if they were to do it to me it’s suddenly inappropriate.
I talked to my colleague Bradley about this. We both agreed it was a troubling double standard. There are horrible people who will take advantage in double standard situations and commit abuse. But even when emotional trauma isn’t inflicted, the presence of a double standard in behavior bothers me.
So I think from now on I’m going to ask the kids while we’re playing: “can I pick you up? Can I pat you on the head?”
This seems like it could become rather annoying, but I remember sitting in orientation as an RA and one freshman asking if it would “kill the mood” asking if you could kiss someone, etc. Like this behavior – asking someone if they’re OK with you doing something to them / with them – is inherently weird.
But in reality, nothing is inherently weird. We as a society have labeled some things as “OK” and some things as “NOT OK,” and along that spectrum are things that are “WEIRD” (Google search of “what things are weird?” yielded non-helpful results). But I think those things are only weird because no does them. But if everyone started doing them, they wouldn’t be weird. Like wearing your hat backwards. That was weird probably for a really long time before enough people did it that it switched to being OK.
I want to make sure I model the behavior I want to see in the world around me, no matter how small that behavior may seem.