Ask Clem: 'My father-in-law tried to bribe my child for her affection'

·5-min read

Clementine Ford is a writer, feminist and reality television obsessive. She is the author of the best-selling books "Fight Like A Girl" and "Boys Will Be Boys". She lives in Naarm (Melbourne) with her son and his ever increasing collection of plastic dinosaurs.

Clementine Ford
Clementine Ford dishes out her best advice for one concerned mum. Photo: Supplied

Dear Clementine,

I’ve just come home from a family lunch with my husband and almost two-year-old daughter. My daughter was happily playing with her grandfather as he was blowing her bubbles. He stopped, and she begged for more bubbles. I heard him say “I’ll blow you more bubbles if you give me a hug.” I am furious that he tried to bribe my child with something she really wanted for her affection. I said, “we don’t negotiate for hugs.”

How can I best advocate for my daughter in these situations when all I want to do is come down on other people like a tonne of bricks for perpetuating a culture where women feel they owe men/people affection, that their affection is a favour that can be bought?

The older generation continually look at me like I’m nuts, because I am trying to teach my daughter about consent, that her body is hers, that no one can ask from her or her body what she does not want to offer of her own will.

My husband agrees when we talk about these things in a general nature, but then thinks I’m treating his family unfairly when I speak up for my daughter in these situations.

I’m often heard saying “I don’t think she wants to give you a hug/kiss, and that’s ok,’ after they ask and try to force the issue when she is giving ‘f*** off’ social cues.

Am I overreacting?


Concerned Mum

A young boy being held by his mother with his head resting on her shoulder, looking down a suburban street.
A mum was left furious after her father-in-law tried to bribe her daughter for her affection. Photo: Getty Images

Dear Concerned Mum,

Firstly, you’re not overreacting. One of the most powerful things we can do for our children is to listen to our instincts, and this is what you’re doing. Listening to the lizard brain voice inside helps us to advocate for children while they’re still too little to advocate for themselves. More than this, it teaches them from an early age that they are worth advocating for.

Some of the most uncomfortable moments I can remember from my childhood are the ones involving unwanted hugs and kisses from adults. The vast majority of these experiences were ‘innocent’ in nature, but that didn’t make them any less unnerving.

Being a child is often a hugely disempowering thing. Few adults seem prepared to listen to children when they attempt to assert their bodily autonomy, particularly when it comes at the risk of upsetting ‘Uncle Phil’. And so we grimace and bear our way through it, learning bit by bit that the preservation of more senior egos is more important than our own feelings of safety and well being. Is it any wonder the #metoo movement has unearthed so many stories of women manipulated or trapped into activity they don’t remember consenting to but felt ill-prepared to stop?

As a mother, your most important job is to defend your child. Sometimes, that’s going to involve upsetting or offending other people. Weathering the discomfort of this isn’t pleasant, but it’s a small and necessary price to pay for ensuring your children understand that their consent is just as tangible and important as anyone else’s.

Your daughter will learn from the example you set for her, and showing her that she has the right to set her own boundaries is profoundly valuable. What a lucky little person she is to have you in her corner.

As to how you can effectively do this, I suggest you first and foremost discuss the issue with your family members but without her present. Explain to them that you are teaching her about consent, and empowering her to exercise bodily autonomy for herself.

Remind your family of the horrifying statistic that 1 in 5 women in Australia will experience sexual assault at some time in their life and that this is an issue much bigger than their own personal feelings.

Impress upon them how important it is that they not teach her that more powerful people than she have the right to trade things she wants for kisses and hugs.

Reassure them that they are allowed to offer her love and affection, but that this is what it must be - an offer. Give her the choice as to whether or not she wants to receive it or reciprocate it.

If they are still resistant to the conversation and think you’re ‘overreacting’, remind them that it ultimately doesn’t matter what they think about it. You are her mother, and this trumps whatever rights to force affection on her they think they might be entitled to.

And remember as well to put these actions into practice yourself. Make it a point of asking her if she wants a kiss or a cuddle. If she says no, repeat her choice back to her. “You’ve told me you don’t want a kiss, so I’m not going to kiss you. I’m so proud of you for speaking up for yourself!”

You will undoubtedly be dismissed as hysterical by some people or paranoid. Hasn’t this always been the response to women who try to assert their independence and autonomy?

Just know that it doesn’t matter how many people think you’re being ‘a little too’ about this - you have a little girl looking on and learning from your example, and she’s the only one who matters.

Good luck!

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